On the day US envoy George Mitchell arrived to once more push Israel and the Palestinians toward direct talks, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement called on Abbas on Thursday to resist US and Israeli pressure to start direct negotiations.

“The lack of credibility and confidence resulting from the Israeli rejection of the indirect talks, which have achieved no progress, will become entrenched as ‘givens and facts’ if there is a transition to direct talks,” AFP reported Fatah as saying in a statement.

“That is something the Palestinian leadership has not and will not accept,” read the statement, illustrating the domestic pressure Abbas is under to not renew talks with Israel before Jerusalem freezes all Jewish construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has given no indication that he would accede to the Palestinian demand to extend the 10- month settlement construction moratorium and expand it to include building in Jerusalem. He is under pressure from within his own Likud Party to renew building in the settlements once the freeze expires on September 26.

Mitchell arrived on Thursday afternoon and went immediately to talks with Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

He is scheduled to meet with Abbas on Saturday.

On Friday morning, and again on Sunday morning, after meeting the PA president, Mitchell is scheduled to meet with Netanyahu. He is set to go to Cairo on Sunday for a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the same day Netanyahu is also scheduled to go meet with the Egyptian leader.

In a related development, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose relationship with the Egyptians has been strained since he publicly insulted Mubarak a number of years ago, spoke on Thursday with Egyptian Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and thanked him for Cairo’s cooperation in finding a resolution to the Libyan-backed ship that set sail from Greece last Saturday night for Gaza City.

After days of uncertainty and feverish diplomatic activity, the ship docked on Wednesday evening in El- Arish, in Sinai, rather than in the Gaza Strip. The Egyptian authorities – who were in constant contact with Israel – gave permission for the ship to unload its cargo there, where it will be checked and then transferred overland to the Strip.

Lieberman said the Egyptian cooperation enabled the entire episode to pass without the need for the use of force.

According to a statement put out by Lieberman’s office, the foreign minister – not generally on Suleiman’s itinerary when he visits Israel – updated Suleiman on Israel’s new polices toward Gaza. The statement said the two would meet during the Egyptian’s next visit to Israel.

On Saturday, meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is scheduled to arrive in the region, and on Sunday she is slated to visit the Gaza Strip. This will be the highest-level visit to Gaza by a Western diplomat since Israel significantly eased the overland blockade and lifted numerous restrictions on what is allowed into the area.

Following her visit to Gaza, Ashton will go to Sderot. She will meet with Netanyahu and Lieberman in Jerusalem later in the day.

Ashton is expected during her meetings to discuss the possibility of an EU role at the Gaza crossings to expedite the transfer of merchandise.

Later in the month, the foreign ministers of Italy, Germany, France, Spain and Britain are expected to go to Gaza. Lieberman invited them last month, altering Israel’s policy of the last several years of – with a few exceptions – not letting foreign politicians go into Gaza from Israel, so as not to bestow legitimacy on Hamas.

Neither Ashton nor the EU foreign ministers will meet Hamas officials.

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