Mitchell meets with PM in J'lem

No breakthrough expected

For the second time in three days, US Middle East envoy George Mitchell met on Sunday with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, even as Israeli diplomatic officials played down on Saturday night any prospect for a dramatic breakthrough. Over the course of the meeting, which lasted for over an hour, the three "continued their discussions on moving the peace process forward," a statement from the prime minister's office said. Netanyahu's envoy on the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, Yitzhak Molcho, and Barak's chief of staff, Michael Herzog, are to travel to Washington this week for further discussions. Mitchell met with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas late last week before traveling to Cairo over the weekend to meet with Egyptian officials. Prior to the meeting, Netanyahu convened his seven-member inner cabinet to discuss the goals of his meeting with Mitchell. The inner cabinet is comprised of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Vice Premier Moshe Ya'alon, Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor, Minister-without-portfolio Bennie Begin and Interior Minister Eli Yishai. On Friday. Netanyahu spent two hours with Mitchell, in a meeting that Israeli officials described as "productive." No other details were provided. On Saturday night, Mitchell also met with Molcho and Herzog. On Friday evening, the US envoy met for two hours in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who, according to the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, said he had already started the process of pushing for a vote in the UN's Human Rights Council on the Goldstone Commission report that accused Israel of war crimes during Operation Cast Lead. Abbas has come under withering domestic criticism for his decision last week, allegedly under intense US pressure, to pull the motion for a vote that would send the issue to the UN Security Council. An Israeli diplomatic official, when asked if the issue came up in Mitchell's talks on Friday with Netanyahu, said the issue is "always raised now" and is central on Israel's agenda. Mitchell arrived in Israel on Wednesday, some two weeks after Netanyahu, Abbas and US President Barack Obama's tripartite meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session. Obama said at the time that Mitchell would continue to negotiate with the sides, and would report back to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who would in turn appraise him of the status of the talks by mid-October. At a press conference in Ramallah with PA negotiator Saeb Erekat on Friday night, Mitchell said, "We do not underestimate the difficulties for us or for the parties, but we all have obligations to do everything we can to help achieve the goal of comprehensive peace that will be good for the Palestinians, good for the Israelis, good for all the people in this region. "We discussed our common vision of a viable and independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are deeply committed to that," he said. Erekat, in an indication that the Palestinians have not dropped their demand for a total settlement freeze before restarting direct negotiations, said that if Israel "wanted to resume the peace talks, it should first express clear commitment to implementing the road map plan, which includes stopping settlement, and be committed to the two-sate solution." Netanyahu has made clear that although he would agree to a temporary moratorium on new housing starts in the settlements, he would not freeze construction of some 2,500 units currently being built, or another 500 that were approved last month. He also has made clear that he would not stop construction for public buildings such as schools, synagogues and health clinics. Moreover, Netanyahu has said he would not agree to any settlement freeze in Jerusalem. Mitchell, expected to leave the region on Sunday after his meeting with the prime minister, said the sides had been invited back to Washington to continue the talks, with Erekat telling reporters this would likely take place within two weeks.