Israel doesn't want to see deadlines imposed on the negotiating process with the Palestinians, even as the US is endorsing the idea of a two-year time frame.
"In the past, attempts to impose time frameworks have not proved either realizable or helpful," Ambassador to Washington Michael Oren told The Jerusalem Post.
Oren talked to the Post hours before US Middle East envoy George Mitchell said Wednesday night that "we think that the negotiation should last no more than two years. Once begun we think it can be done within that period of time."
Mitchell was speaking on PBS's Charlie Rose show, as the Americans were making an intensified push to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table and amidst much prodding from the Arab side for a limited time-line on the talks.
"We hope the parties agree," Mitchell said of the two-year schedule. "Personally I think it can be done in a shorter period of time."
Oren, in throwing cold water on the idea, noted that he had no particular knowledge of efforts to limit talks to two years.
"I don't know whether it's on the table or not, but we want to move swiftly onto the peace process," he said.
The US is trying to work out the time-line for talks as well as their framework in an effort to get the parties to commence fresh negotiations.
The framework, or Terms of Reference, that Jerusalem would like to see would include security for Israel, recognition for the nation as a Jewish state and end-of-claims conclusion to the talks, according to Oren.
He noted that these goals would by their nature be different from the Palestinians'.
Rather, he said, it would be "a statement of what Israel's goals are and what the Palestinians' goals are, even if the assumption is that they wouldn't be immediately confluent."
The concept is that "these goals can be reconciled through good-faith negotiations," Oren said.
The formulation Oren articulated echoes a statement made by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton following Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's announcement of a 10-month settlement housing-start moratorium in late November.
"We believe that through good-faith negotiations the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements," Clinton said.
Mitchell, in his interview with Rose, also underscored that statement as a key indication of how the US sees the negotiations being framed.
"Secretary of State Clinton made a statement just recently, in which she set forth the positions of the two sides and expressed the view which I strongly hold that through negotiations those can be reconciled," he said.
Oren, in speaking to the Post, stressed that the peace effort was at a "critical juncture" right now. He described the Egyptians as well as the US as "very fully engaged" in trying to get things off the ground.
The Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers are due to meet with Clinton and Mitchell in Washington Friday to continue efforts to create an environment for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to return to the negotiating table before Mitchell then heads to the region.
"The major effort is in getting Abu Mazen [Abbas] back to the negotiating table," Oren said, describing the settlement freeze, mutually acceptable Terms of Reference and Arab support as part of that effort.
During Mitchell's interview with Rose, the US envoy said Israel was not going to stop construction in east Jerusalem, and that this issue should be dealt with during negotiations.
"They [Israel] don't regard that [Jerusalem] as a settlement, because they think it's part of Israel," Mitchell said.
Abbas has said that he would not rejoin negotiations until Israel stopped all settlement construction, including in Jerusalem.
Mitchell also said during the interview that both Israel and the Palestinians understood that in the final analysis the permanent borders would not be the 1967 lines.
Asked if that meant that the settlements would make a difference in terms of the way the final borders were determined, he said, "Yes, they will. There is no doubt about that, and I think that's fairly universal understanding of that, that's just a reality that's going to have to be dealt with. You can ask wishfully that things might be as you'd like them to be, or you deal with them as they are, and I think we have to deal with them as they are, but there will be adjustments with swaps, and what I believe is that we can get an agreement on that once we get them in negotiations."
This comment was interpreted by some in Jerusalem as recognition by the Obama administration that - as was presumed under the Bush administration - the main settlement blocs will remain part of Israel.
For its part, the PA is seeking US "assurances" that Israel would meet all its obligations under the terms of the road map, including a total freeze of settlement construction, as a prerequisite for resuming the peace talks, a PA official in Ramallah reiterated on Thursday.
The official said that Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboul Gheit and General Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who are expected to hold talks in Washington with senior US administration officials in the coming days, would demand the "assurances" on behalf of the PA, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Leaders of the four parties have been holding intensive consultations over the past week on the prospects of reviving the Middle East peace process.
The PA official said that the three Arab countries "fully supported" the Palestinian request for US guarantees.
"The Americans are the only ones who can provide such assurances, because they are the only one who can exert pressure on Israel," the official told the Post. "This is the least we expect from the US administration before we agree to the resumption of the talks [with Israel]," he added.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior PLO official who also serves as an unofficial adviser to Abbas, said the Palestinians were now waiting to see what the two Egyptian officials would manage to get from the US administration.
"The question is, will the Americans be able to provide us with any assurances," he said. "However, I don't think there's room for much optimism because in the past we've seen that the Americans couldn't force Israel to meet its commitments under the terms of the road map."
Nabil Abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for Abbas, threatened that if the US administration failed to force Israel to completely halt settlement construction, the PA would seek the UN Security Council's approval for unilateral recognition of the pre-June 4, 1967, lines as the borders of the future Palestinian state.
Abu Rudaineh warned that the entire region was facing a "volcano" because of the international community's indifference to Israeli "intransigence."
Meanwhile, Mitchell, who said he would be returning to Israel in the "next few days," also said he would be going to Syria to try to breathe life in the dormant Israel-Syrian track.
"Until now, the Syrians want to complete the indirect talks through Turkey that began in 2008 but ended when the Gaza conflict erupted," he said. "The Israelis prefer immediate and direct negotiations with the Syrians, not completing the indirect process through the Turks. What we said to the two sides is we want to facilitate their coming together. And I will be going to both Israel and Syria on my upcoming visit to try to further this process."
Mitchell said he believed that "an Israel-Syria track could operate in parallel with an Israeli-Palestinian track."
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.