Deal for direct Mideast talks ‘very close’
Palestinians say Israelis hold key
JERUSALEM — There is still no decision to resume direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, President Obama’s envoy acknowledged yesterday, despite optimism in Washington that agreement is close.
Officials in Washington had hoped that envoy George Mitchell’s current two-day round of separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders would be the last before peace talks are restarted.
Mitchell met yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who repeated his call for direct negotiations.
Mitchell said, “Well, we share your objective, as you know, and we are continuing our efforts.’’
Netanyahu replied, “So let’s get on with it.’’
In Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton echoed Mitchell’s assessment.
“We continue to work closely with both sides to get to direct talks as soon as possible,’’ she said, describing the Mitchell-Netanyahu session as “a good, productive meeting.’’
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said there was no deadlock.
“We are very close,’’ he said.
Afterward, an Israeli official said there was no breakthrough, putting the blame on the Palestinians. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because no government statement was made.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat rejected the Israeli charge.
“The key is in Netanyahu’s hands,’’ he said, adding that the meeting between Mitchell and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday was “constructive and very positive.’’
Palestinians are demanding frameworks for the talks that include a total freeze on construction in Israeli settlements and a commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.
Israel’s partial freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank, imposed to spur the talks, expires Sept. 26, and Netanyahu has indicated that it will not be extended.
Israel’s ceremonial president, Shimon Peres, spoke out yesterday in favor of direct talks, which he said would serve the “interests of peace and peaceful coexistence.’’ Perez, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, spoke after talks in Sofia yesterday with Bulgaria’s president, Georgi Parvanov. Peres said Bulgaria could serve as the venue for the negotiations.
Israel is insisting on talks with no preconditions, balking at previous international statements and frameworks that might have massaged the differences.
The last direct talks ended in late 2008 after a year of negotiations. Israel proposed a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip, parts of Jerusalem, and almost all of the West Bank, with territorial exchanges. Erekat has said the Palestinians made a counterproposal to the United States.
Since then, however, the more hawkish Netanyahu has taken power. He has revoked the earlier Israeli proposal and would probably offer much less to the Palestinians.
Netanyahu pressed his case in his annual greeting to the world’s Muslims at the start of the holy month of Ramadan.
“We are marking this important month at a time of our attempts to reach direct talks with the Palestinians and promote peace agreements with our Arab neighbors,’’ he said in the recorded message. “I know you are partners to this goal.’’