By HAVIV RETTIG GUR
A senior American diplomatic official on Wednesday played down expectations ahead of discussions slated to begin Thursday between US Middle East envoy George Mitchell and Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
"There are no expectations that we will come to a breakthrough in the next two days," said the official. "But we are doing this with a real sense of urgency."
US President Barack Obama has asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to give a progress report on the status of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in mid-October, a deadline that gives added impetus to Mitchell's efforts to bring the two sides to the table.
Mitchell is scheduled to meet Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres on Friday and Palestinian leaders later Friday and over the weekend.
Yet despite the "real determination" to start the negotiations as soon as possible on the part of American diplomats, "Nothing will ever be as fast as we would like it to be. We have no illusions about that. I think we will get negotiations launched, and the idea is to get them launched as soon as possible," the official said.
The official refused to provide a timetable for the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian talks, which have been stymied by disagreements over an Israeli settlement freeze, Palestinian calls for international legal investigations of Operation Cast Lead and growing pressure on the Palestinian Authority not to appear too compromising in the run-up to negotiations.
According to the official, despite all the obstacles to negotiations, "I don't think we're back to square one. Obviously there are always developments in the region. But all of these issues demonstrate how necessary it is to get to the negotiating table to finally resolve the final-status issues. For example, when borders are agreed upon, then settlements are no longer an issue."
The sides must "get down to business," he added. "The president [Obama] has said to stop talking about talking."
There were optimistic signs that the negotiations could begin soon, the official added.
"We see an appreciation from both sides that they are committed to a comprehensive peace and to the [resumption] of negotiations. You look at where we were nine months ago when [Cast Lead] was going on in Gaza, and at least one side - arguably both - was pretty much categorically unwilling to return to negotiations. Now we are discussing terms of reference for a return to negotiations. It's hard to say that we're not closer to where we want to be. That just seems to me irrefutable."
The official also cited the new administration's commitment to the negotiations as a factor in this positive direction.
"I think we bring a very different approach from the previous administration, with the president personally involved right from day one. Also, there's an alignment of interests across the board in the face of what the parties view as the greatest threat to their own existence," he added, explaining that shared threat was Iran.
"The combination of an alignment of interests, and the president's determination and credibility, makes this a bit of a different moment."
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