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Mitchell Presses Israelis to Resolve Settlement Issue

By Luis Ramirez
14 September 2009

U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell is on the second day of a visit to Israel, where he is working to jump-start the peace process. It has been a slow start for the U.S. official in his efforts to bridge the gaps.

The U.S. envoy had to take a break from meetings with the Israelis when his talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were postponed until Tuesday. Mr. Netanyahu attended the funeral of an air force pilot who was killed in a training accident.

Mitchell was also due to attend the funeral.

The U.S. envoy's main aim on this trip is to bridge the gap between Washington, which wants Israel to stop expanding its settlements in the West Bank and the Israeli government, which last week approved construction of hundreds of new homes inside settlements.

Palestinian officials have said they will not return to talks until Israel halts settlement expansion.

On Sunday, Mitchell started his talks with Israeli officials including President Shimon Peres, who told him Israel wants to see negotiations reopened by the end of this month. Mitchell said he hopes to end the settlement controversy soon and move on to peace talks.

"It is our intention to conclude this phase of our discussions in the very near future, within the timeframes that you suggest, to enable us to move on to the more important phase," Mitchell said.

Mitchell is working to mediate a meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly next week in New York.

Mitchell is due to go to the West Bank to meet with Mr. Abbas. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, speaking on Palestinian radio, said Mr. Abbas would tell Mitchell there will be no compromises from the Palestinians on their demand for a settlement freeze.

Erekat said President Abbas will tell Mitchell that if the United States does not succeed in convincing Israel to stop the settlement expansion, it will - in Erekat's words - mean that no one in the Arab world will believe that Mr. Obama can ultimately convince Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank.

Palestinians see the West Bank settlements, home to about 300,000 Israelis, as an obstacle to the creation of a future Palestinian state.

Israel has indicated it might agree to a limited freeze, possibly allowing for the completion of thousands of homes under construction.

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