Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and President Barack Obama will meet this week after all, despite US Middle East envoy George Mitchell's failure to put together a package that would enable the launching of full-blown negotiations between the sides.
In a surprise announcement, the White House said on Saturday night that the three would meet on Tuesday, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York.
The meeting, the first time Netanyahu will meet with Abbas since becoming prime minister in March, will take place immediately after Obama holds separate sessions with Netanyahu and Abbas.
The meeting will take place even though Netanyahu did not announce a total settlement freeze, a condition the Palestinians had set for the talks.
The summit will take place at a particularly important time for Obama, who is keen - according to observers in Jerusalem - to go to the UN General Assembly and the G-20 meeting of the heads of the world's leading economies with an achievement, rather than a stalemate, in the Middle East diplomatic process.
According to these assessments, once Obama invited the parties to talks, neither could refuse.
Israeli officials said Jerusalem was not surprised by the invitation. The meeting was announced a day after Mitchell had held two more rounds of talks with Netanyahu in Jerusalem, but was unable to close the gaps.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs issued a statement saying the meetings "will continue the efforts of President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and special envoy George Mitchell to lay the groundwork for the relaunch of negotiations, and to create a positive context for those negotiations so that they can succeed."
No announcement is expected at the meeting of the three leaders, according to one administration official. But Obama scheduled the session to show his personal commitment to making progress, he said.
Netanyahu's spokesman Nir Hefetz said the prime minister welcomed the invitation for both the bilateral meeting with Obama, and the trilateral meeting with Obama and Abbas. Netanyahu, originally scheduled to leave for the UN General Assembly meeting on Wednesday, is now set to go on Monday afternoon instead. He is scheduled to return on Friday.
Netanyahu's meeting with Obama will be the first time he will speak to Obama since the prime minister delivered his speech at Bar-Ilan University in June, in which he declared a readiness to accept a Palestinian state if it was demilitarized and did not pose a threat to Israeli security. Netanyahu has, however, met with Mitchell on numerous occasions since then.
"Netanyahu was consistent from the beginning that he would agree to go anywhere in the world in order to move the peace forward, as long as there would be no preconditions," Hefetz said. "The prime minister is also pleased that the Palestinians put aside their preconditions and will be coming to the meeting to move the process forward."
Netanyahu is also expected to speak at the UN General Assembly on Thursday. The Prime Minister's Office said Monday his speech there would be "dramatic," directly tackling three main issues: the Iranian nuclear threat, the regional peace process and the recent UN Human Rights Council-sanctioned Goldstone Commission report on Operation Cast Lead.
Netanyahu will stress the threat a nuclear-armed Iran poses to the entire world and not only to Israel. If Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stays in the hall during the prime minister's speech, he will hear Netanyahu say that his country threatens the entire free world, democracy and the Middle East. Netanyahu is also expected to call for another deadline to cap diplomatic engagement with Iran.
Netanyahu will also slam the report commissioned by the UNHCR and written by a small team headed by South African former judge Richard Goldstone. He is expected to say the report ties the hands of democracies fighting terrorism and rewards the terrorists' modes of operation.
PA negotiator Saeb Erekat made clear, however, that the Palestinians didn't see the meeting in New York as a resumption of substantive talks.
"The Palestinian leadership is insisting that there will be no peace negotiations unless settlement activities are halted," he said in a statement.
The US has been pushing hard for the trilateral meeting, and decided to call one even though there was no agreement on a number of important issues, such as the length of a settlement moratorium, the terms of reference for beginning new negotiations, and a time framework for the talks.
Hours before Saturday night's announcement, Israel and the PA traded blame for Mitchell's inability to find a way out of the diplomatic stalemate.
On Saturday, Abbas reiterated after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo that he would not agree to renewed negotiations until Israel agreed to a total settlement freeze.
"The road is now blocked," Abbas told reporters in Cairo on Saturday.
He said there was no more work for Mitchell with the Palestinian side "because we are complying with all our duties. The focus has to be on the Israeli side."
The Foreign Ministry countered by issuing a statement saying that since the Netanyahu government was established over five months ago, it has made clear that it was willing to negotiate without preconditions.
"The PA are the ones who are preventing a meeting and a renewal of the peace process by placing preconditions that it did not place on previous Israeli governments," the statement read. "All sides should put aside preconditions and meet to move peace forward."
Khaled Abu Toameh and news agencies contributed to this report.
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