WASHINGTON – The Palestinians are willing to give the United States at least two more weeks to break the impasse in the peace process and to return both sides to the negotiating table, despite a looming deadline set by the Arab League, according to a top Palestinian official.

PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat met Thursday in Washington with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, as well as other senior State Department officials, as the Americans try to end the stalemate that has developed since Israel let the settlement construction freeze expire on September 26. The Palestinians have demanded a resumption of the freeze as a condition for rejoining direct talks.

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Erekat told reporters that American officials said they were working around the clock to find a resolution, but that it would probably take two to three more weeks to do so.

The impasse in the peace process is likely to be one of the key issues that US officials will discuss with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu when he arrives in the United States on Sunday for a five-day visit. He is expected to meet with Vice President Joseph Biden on Sunday in New Orleans and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday in New York.

President Barack Obama will be in Asia during the visit.

Despite the fact that the Arab League on October 9 gave the US only 30 days to find a way to continue the talks, Erekat said the Palestinians were willing to give the US the time it needed.

He described his message to Mitchell as: “We as Arabs will not convene any sessions or meetings or undermine your efforts until you are finished.”



Erekat also said that he did not discuss with American officials the possibility of the Palestinians seeking unilateral declaration of statehood at the UN, though he added he would like to see US support should the Palestinians make such a move.

He said the US did not express its position on the reconciliation talks to be held between Fatah and Hamas in Damascus on Tuesday. The US in the past has expressed reservations about any PA national unity government in which Hamas participates unless it renounces violence and recognizes Israel.

A State Department official characterized Erekat’s meetings as aimed at “continuing efforts to encourage the parties to advance negotiations toward a two-state solution.”

Palestinian and Arab officials have been floating the possibility of taking unilateral steps toward statehood since the talks hit the impasse, a move that Israel strongly opposes. The US has said it sees direct negotiations as the only way to reach a two-state solution.

Right now, Erekat said, the Palestinians are concentrating on working with Mitchell to return to direct talks. “What we’re focused on now, what we want to work on now, is working with Mitchell and his team.”

As for unilaterally declaring a state, he said, “We’re weighing our options.” He added, “I’m not specifying timelines.”

Clinton: We are working on a non-stop basis

Earlier on Thursday, Clinton reiterated that the US was “working on a nonstop basis with our Israeli and Palestinian friends to design a way forward in the negotiations. I am convinced that both leaders – President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu – are committed to pursuing the two-state solution.”

She underscored the US’s belief that a final-status agreement “can only be achieved through negotiations.”

Abbas has said that if the talks fail, Palestinians will ask the United States to draw up a framework solution, and barring that, they will turn to the UN to seek unilateral statehood.

While in the US, Netanyahu will meet on Monday with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and is likely urge him not to support a Palestinian bid for unilateral statehood.

Netanyahu will also address the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in New Orleans on Monday and meet with Jewish leaders in New York later in the week.

On Thursday, on the eve of his departure, Netanyahu met with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who arrived with a message from President Hosni Mubarak.

“President Mubarak is very worried about the future of the region and has sent me here to ensure that the peace process momentum will continue,” he said.

Egypt wants to work for a breakthrough in the peace process, Suleiman added, before heading into a meeting with President Shimon Peres. He also met with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

In his meetings Suleiman discuss regional issues as well as the continued captivity of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, who has been held by Hamas in Gaza for the last four years.

Netanyahu told Suleiman that Israel wants to achieve a peace agreement that would contribute to both its security and that of the region.

Settler sources, meanwhile, told The Jerusalem Post they feared that while in the US, Netanyahu would cave in to US demands and impose a new moratorium on construction.

Even if no formal announcement is made at that time, his visit could lay the groundwork for such a declaration in the near future, they suggested.

Settlers opened a campaign on Friday morning by publishing large ads in Israeli newspapers that stated that the world was testing Israel’s resilience. If the government did not stand firm, it risked collapsing under Arab serial extortion, the ads warned.

The ads featured photographs of Netanyahu and other ministers alongside statements they had made pledging that the moratorium was a one-time deal. Also prominent were statements from Netanyahu pledging not to divide Jerusalem and that Israel would not return to its pre-1967 lines.

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