Israel accepted France’s invitation to hold direct talks with the Palestinians in Paris next month, even as the Palestinians continued to threaten Tuesday to pull out of the fledgling negotiations unless Israel halted West Bank settlement construction.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s office said that no decision had been made regarding an invitation French President Nicolas Sarkozy had extended to both sides.

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At the request of the PA, the Arab League ministers are scheduled to meet in Cairo on October 4 to decide whether the Palestinians should pursue or suspend the peace talks with Israel, given that Netanyahu allowed the 10-month moratorium on new construction in the settlements to expire at midnight Sunday.

Although the Palestinians initially threatened to stop the peace process at that point, they have delayed any decision on the matter until next Monday.

On Tuesday, the Palestinians continued to give Israel mixed messages when it came to the future of direct talks, which were resumed early this month for the first time since they were suspended in December 2008.

In an interview with a radio station in Paris, Abbas said at one moment that he would give Israel one week before he decided on his future steps, and at another that he would pull out of the talks due to settlement construction.



“If the building continues, we will have to put a stop to the talks,” Abbas was quoted by Agence France Press as saying. “Netanyahu must know that peace is more important than settlements.”

The Bethlehem-based Maan news agency quoted Abbas as saying that he would take “historic decisions” on October 4. The PA president did not elaborate.

Some understood the statement as a new threat to resign from his post or quit the talks if Israel insisted on building in the settlements.

As part of the United States’s frenzied effort to broker a compromise between the deadlocked positions of the two parties, US special envoy George Mitchell arrived in Israel to hold meetings on Wednesday and Thursday with leaders from both sides.

State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said that Mitchel would remain the region to hold talks with other regional leaders in advance of the October 4 meeting.

"There is a multilevel conversation going on. The Israelis, the Palestinians, others in the region, the United States, everyone is advancing ideas and formulas that we hope will convince the parties to stay in the negotiation and will convince countries in the region to continue to support this negotiation," Crowley said.

"We want the Palestinians to stay in the direct negotiations and we want the Israelis to demonstrate that it is in the Palestinian interest to stay in these negotiations," said Crowley.

Although the US has publicly called on Israel to extend the moratorium, Crowley on Tuesday said that the issue of settlements can best be solved through direct negotiations.

On Tuesday night, Mitchell held a private meeting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv, and on Wednesday morning he plans to meet with Netanyahu.

Over the last few days, Netanyahu has spoken over the phone with Sarkozy and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Netanyahu, who, since talking office in the spring of 2009, has always stated his desire to hold direct talks with the Palestinians, said on Tuesday, “I hope that my good conversations with Abbas will continue. It is essential.”

He told both Sarkozy and Clinton, “I believe with a full heart that it is within our power to reach a framework agreement within a year and to change the history of the Middle East.”

In his conversation with Sarkozy, Netanyahu agreed to travel to Paris next month to meet with Abbas.

A government source added that Netanyahu was happy to meet Abbas at any time and in any place.

“Ultimately we believe that the direct dialogue between the two leaders has to be routine and regular for the process to succeed,” said the source.

But Nabil Sha’ath, a member of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks, told reporters Tuesday that “settlements and peace are two parallels that do not meet. Israel must chose between the two.”

Sha’ath said that the resumption of the new construction work in West Bank settlements on Monday aimed not only to “demolish Palestinian houses and deepen the occupation, but also to sabotage the peace process.”

He reiterated the PA’s strong opposition to conducting negotiations with Israel while the construction was under way in the settlements.

Sha’ath also said that the Palestinians would make a final decision on the future of the talks after hearing what the Arab League had to say on October 4.

Dani Dayan, who heads the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, said Tuesday he was “cautiously optimistic” that Netanyahu would hold firm to his stance that the moratorium was over.

“The situation today is completely different than it was two days ago, when there was a big question mark if the freeze would be extended,” he said.

The council has continued to lobby ministers to oppose any initiative by Netanyahu to reinstate it, but to date, Dayan said, there is no sign that the prime minister is attempting to drum up support for such a measure.

Meanwhile, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told the UN General Assembly in New York that “in Israel, there is much talk about peace, yet the drums of war continue to sound.”

He warned that Israel’s continued settlement activities were about to make a two-state solution, in which Israel and Palestine would live side by side in peace, a “dead letter that stands no chance of survival.”

Nonetheless, Muallem said, Syria wants peace and “is ready to resume peace negotiations from the point where they stopped through the Turkish mediator.”

He reiterated that a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which was captured in the 1967 war, “is not negotiable, nor is it a bargaining chip.”

Netanyahu has not said he is willing to cede the territory Syria wants.

Turkey mediated four rounds of indirect peace negotiations between the two countries in 2008, but Syria suspended the talks in December of that year over Israel’s military offensive in Gaza.

AP contributed to this report.
                                

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