The U.S. is engaged in a last-minute bid to save Middle East peace talks as the end of a West Bank settlement-construction freeze threatens to derail them, a senior Israeli government official said.
Israel backs U.S.-led efforts to find a compromise, and asked its chief negotiator, Yitzhak Molcho, to remain in the U.S. and continue talks, the official, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record, said in a phone interview today.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rejected any compromise that doesn’t guarantee a “complete halt” to settlement activity by Israel, Agence France-Presse cited his adviser, Nabil Abu Rudeina, as saying today.
Israel believes it’s possible to reach a compromise if both sides show flexibility and are creative, said the official.
Abbas has said the talks he started with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the beginning of this month can’t continue if construction of the settlements resumes as planned on Sept. 26. The Israeli leader repeatedly said he doesn’t plan on extending the 10-month freeze.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who joined Netanyahu and Abbas for talks last week in Egypt and Jerusalem, urged the two leaders to reach a compromise on settlements that would allow negotiations to continue. Obama’s envoy, George Mitchell, said Israeli and Palestinian officials would meet this week to try to find a solution and keep the talks going.
Netanyahu has spoken in the past two days with Clinton, Mitchell and former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, who serves as an international special envoy to the Middle East, in an effort to find a compromise formula, the Israeli official said.
“There is broad Israeli support for extending the settlement freeze in the West Bank outside the so-called ‘consensus blocs’ -- such as Maale Adumim, Ariel, Gush Etzion and other areas around Jerusalem -- that are likely to remain under Israeli control in a final-status agreement” said Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. “There are also hints that the Palestinians might accept this as a basis to continue the talks, if they are forced to by the Americans.”
The end of the settlement-building moratorium may mean the start of construction on at least 2,066 housing units that have the necessary permits, according to a survey by Peace Now, a Tel Aviv-based group that opposes settlement construction.
President Barack Obama, in his address yesterday to the United Nations General Assembly, reiterated his call for Israel to extend the building moratorium as a way to build trust and keep the peace process going.
“Now is the time for this opportunity to be seized, so that it does not slip away,” Obama said.