Mitchell in Jerusalem in new bid to kickstart indirect peace talks
President Barack Obama's special envoy to the Middle East hopes to finally launch long delayed indirect Israeli- Palestinian peace negotiations, in a new, three-day round of shuttle diplomacy starting Friday, a US official said, DPA reported.
Envoy George Mitchell was scheduled to meet Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem Friday, before travelling to the nearby West Bank city of Ramallah in the evening for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
He is expected to leave on Sunday, Kurt Hoyer, a spokesman for the US embassy in Tel Aviv, told the German Press-Agency dpa.
Mitchell's arrival comes despite Israel's rejection of demands that it freeze construction in Jewish neighbourhoods of annexed East Jerusalem.
"I am saying one thing. There will be no freeze in Jerusalem," the Netanyahu said in an interview broadcast on Israel's Channel 2 television news. "This is a red line and I'm not crossing it."
The Palestinians had thus far insisted on a full freeze of Israeli construction in all of the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as a precondition for starting peace talks.
Israel Radio quoted Israeli officials as saying that an understanding was in the making with the US that they hoped would nonetheless allow the start of indirect talks.
"Mr Mitchell is here to get both parties to start proximity talks," Hoyer said. The US diplomat would not speculate whether and when he would make a formal announcement of the start of the indirect negotiations he hopes to mediate.
He had already made such an announcement during his last visit with Vice President Joe Biden to the region in March, but an ill- timed Israeli announcement to build 1,600 homes in the East Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Ramat Shlomo had derailed the talks.
US Assistant Secretary Philip Crowley said in Washington Thursday that Mitchell decided to travel to Israel and the West Bank at the last minute, after talks between advisers gave "some indication that both sides are willing to engage seriously on the issues that are on the table.
"We don't go to meet just to meet," he said.
"Based on the meetings that - the conversation that we've had over a number of weeks, but specifically what we heard yesterday from both parties to George Mitchell's deputy David Hale and Dan Shapiro of the NSC - we felt it was fruitful for George to travel," Crowley added.