Mitchell: Neither side wants to stop direct talks

Abbas will continue ‘searching for solutions’ with US; Netanyahu expected to address issue in cabinet meeting.

Mitchell 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Mitchell 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is expected Monday at the weekly cabinet meeting to make his first public comments on the diplomatic negotiations since the process went into a tailspin following his decision not to renew the 10-month settlement moratorium that expired last week.
Netanyahu spent the Succot holiday last week at his home in Caesarea and issued a number of statements through his office calling on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas not to quit the talks, but did not speak out publicly about the situation.
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While it is likely Netanyahu will address the issue at the on-camera opening of the meeting, the settlement construction moratorium is not on the cabinet’s agenda – much to the chagrin of a number of ministers – and no debate on the matter is expected in the meeting.
It was not yet clear when Netanyahu would convene his forum of senior ministers, the septet, or the 15-member security cabinet to discuss American proposals for keeping the direct negotiations alive.
One government source said Netanyahu is not actively lobbying ministers yet to support a two-month extension of the settlement freeze in exchange for various US security and diplomatic commitments, because there is no concrete proposal yet on the table. It is widely believed that Netanyahu will not bring the issue to any government forum until he has in hand a list of US commitments in exchange for extending the moratorium.
“The discussions are ongoing, no one has raised their arms and surrendered,” a government source said Sunday.
US envoy George Mitchell, who arrived in the region last Tuesday, was expected to fly back to Washington following his talks in Jordan on Sunday. In addition to visiting Israel, the PA and Jordan, he also went to Qatar and Egypt, apparently in an effort to enlist Arab support in getting the PA to remain in the talks. An Arab League forum is scheduled to decide the matter at a meeting Friday in Libya.
Mitchell, following a meeting Sunday morning in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak before going to Amman, said that both Israel and the PA, despite their differences, “have asked us to continue these discussions in an effort to establish the conditions under which they can continue direct negotiations.
“They both want to continue these negotiations, they do not want to stop the talks,” he said.
Directly after the meeting in Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit backed the Palestinians’ refusal to negotiate with Israel as long as it continued to build West Bank settlements.
“We understand the Palestinian position which calls for setting the appropriate environment and circumstances for negotiations to take place and continue,” Aboul Gheit said. “The current conditions are not favorable.”
Aboul Gheit said the focus now should be on continued US and international efforts to pressure Israel into agreeing to extend the settlement moratorium.
Two days earlier, however, he issued surprising criticism of the Palestinian position of making talks contingent on the settlement building restrictions, saying the sides should concentrate on drawing the borders of a future Palestinian state.
Abbas, who met Mitchell and Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman on Sunday, said following that meeting that despite serious issues blighting the peace talks, he would continue to “search for solutions.”
According to news agency reports, Abbas told reporters that Israel’s refusal to extend the settlement construction freeze is what has led to the current impasse, but that he would not stop discussions with the US as a result.
“Of course, we are not going to sever ties with the Americans, and we will continue to have contacts with them to search for solutions, but the settlement building should stop and then we will return to the negotiating table,” he said.
AP contributed to this report.