(photo credit: AP)
Israeli diplomatic officials are gearing up for a month of intensive diplomatic activity expected to culminate in a tripartite US, Israeli, Palestinian summit in New York before Yom Kippur, President Shimon Peres said Monday.
Even though Nabil Shaath, a top aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said Monday that Abbas would not meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu until there was a full settlement freeze, Peres said in an interview with Fox News that US President Barack Obama would likely mediate a meeting between the two by the end of the month.
Netanyahu is scheduled to fly to the UN General Assembly meeting in New York on September 20, right after Rosh Hashana. Both Abbas and Obama are expected to be at the UN as well.
"Yes, I think they will meet by the end of September," Peres said. "President Obama will chair it, and I think that at least there is a chance that they will decide they are going to reopen negotiations. But that will not include Hamas."
But Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior PLO official and close associate of Abbas, on Monday night denied such a meeting was planned.
Abed Rabbo told the Palestinian Ma'an news agency that there had been no discussion of a meeting and that the US had not raised such a possibility.
Peres said there was no agreement yet on the issue of a settlement construction freeze.
"On that particular issue, there is not yet an agreement. Negotiations are going on," he said. "I do believe there is a solution for it as well...It must be soon. It's very hard to convince your own people to make so many concessions - to take so many risks.
"But this is the task of a leader to move ahead. [Netanyahu] is aware of the choice, and he knows there is no chance, no escape, and no alternative to go ahead and make peace. He knows he must do it ...it's just not a simple proposition."
Senior government officials said that Israel and the US were still looking for a formula that would enable the relaunching of the diplomatic process, and at the same time ensure that normal life be maintained in the settlements.
Any Israeli settlement freeze, one official said, would be dependent on Israel receiving confidence-building gestures from the Arab world.
Although the Obama administration had originally hoped that Saudi Arabia would make some small but symbolic gesture to Israel, Obama has been met by a flat Saudi refusal.
Other countries, however, such as Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia and Morocco are expected to take some steps, from allowing Israeli aircraft to fly over their territory to reestablishing interest sections that were closed down at the outbreak of the second intifada.
Netanyahu's envoy Yitzhak Molcho and the Defense Ministry's Mike Herzog will continue discussions with US Mideast envoy George Mitchell's staff in the US this week to try to close a deal that would pave the way for a first meeting between Abbas and Netanyahu since the prime minister took office in March.
In the run-up to the UN General Assembly meeting, the EU foreign ministers will meet Wednesday and Thursday in Stockholm, and then again on September 14 in Brussels, to discuss - among other issues - the Middle East.
In preparation for the meeting later this week, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana held meetings in Jerusalem Monday with Peres, Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader Tzipi Livni.
One Israeli diplomatic source who participated in the talks said Solana was very much in listening mode, and that everyone was waiting to see what would come out of the US-Israeli negotiations.
Lieberman, who also met Quartet envoy Tony Blair on Monday, told both Blair and Solana that bilateral initiatives, rather than unilateral ones, were what was needed to promote peace in the region, according to a statement put out by Lieberman's office.
Lieberman's comments were in response to a plan floated last week by PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad whereby the PA would declare a state of its own by the end of 2010 if no agreement was reached with Israel by then.
"Palestinian unilateral initiatives do not contribute to a positive dialogue between the parties, and if the unilateral initiative presented by Salaam Fayad is promoted, it will not go unanswered," Lieberman said, though he gave no indication of what the response would be.
Last week, during his trip to Europe, Netanyahu dismissed Fayad's idea out of hand and would not respond to it.
Lieberman also rejected setting a deadline or time frame for the negotiations on a overall agreement, saying that in the past this has led only to disappointment and frustration.