U.S. Middle East Envoy George Mitchell said he’ll keep trying to bridge a dispute over West Bank settlements because Israelis and Palestinians agree in principle on the need to continue direct peace talks.
Mitchell spoke in Cairo today after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the wake of yesterday’s threat by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee to stop the negotiations with Israel unless it freezes settlement construction.
“Both the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority have asked us to continue these discussions in an effort to establish the conditions under which they can continue direct negotiations,” Mitchell said in a statement posted on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. “They do not want to stop the talks.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu allowed a 10-month partial moratorium on construction in the West Bank to expire on Sept. 26, resisting international pressure to extend it. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said he will make his final decision on whether to suspend negotiations with Israel after meeting foreign ministers from the Arab League Oct. 8 in Libya.
Mitchell, who conferred with leaders in Doha, Qatar, yesterday, flew to Jordan for consultations with King Abdullah II after leaving Cairo, the Jordanian state news agency Petra said. Abdullah also met in Amman with Abbas today, it said.
Mitchell said he will hold more talks with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders over the next few days, as well as with “other leaders in the region, in Europe and elsewhere.”
While advising Abbas to break off talks with Israel if settlement construction continues, the PLO panel also said he should continue contacts with U.S. mediators on trying to resolve the dispute, Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said.
Netanyahu issued a statement after the PLO meeting yesterday, urging Abbas to continue the talks, saying they could lead to a “historic agreement.”
The PLO is an umbrella group for most Palestinian political factions. It doesn’t include Hamas, the militant Islamic group that rules the Gaza Strip.
In Gaza, Hamas sent a statement to reporters, praising the PLO decision to halt the peace talks as “a good step.”
Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, ending a partnership government with Abbas’s Fatah party that began after Hamas won a majority in Palestinian parliamentary elections the previous year. The Islamic militant group, which advocates Israel’s destruction, is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Israel.
The West Bank construction freeze, declared by Netanyahu in November, in what he said was a bid to bring Palestinians to the negotiating table, excluded about 3,000 homes as well as some public buildings.
Israeli building crews began work last week at settlements including Ariel, Oranit, Tekoa and Adam, according to Naftali Bennett, director-general of the Yesha Council, which represents more than 300,000 settlers in the West Bank.
Israel has built about 120 settlements in the West Bank since the late 1960s. Another 100 smaller settlements, which Israel calls outposts, were built during the past decade.
The United Nations says the settlements are illegal, and the International Committee of the Red Cross says they breach the Fourth Geneva Convention governing actions on occupied territory. President Barack Obama has said the settlements aren’t legitimate.
Israel says the settlements don’t fall under the convention because the territory wasn’t recognized as belonging to anyone before the 1967 war, in which Israel prevailed, and therefore isn’t occupied.