U.S. envoy seeks Mideast talks deal, tension rises

JERUSALEM Sat Mar 6, 2010 5:03pm EST

1 of 7. George Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, reads a statement after meeting with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus January 20, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/ Khaled al-Hariri

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy began a round of meetings on Saturday aimed at relaunching negotiations, while the Palestinian leader said he feared the 20-year-old peace process with Israel was close to collapse.

George Mitchell, the U.S. mediator, met Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv, an Israeli spokesman said. In keeping with Mitchell's low-key style, he made no public comment.

He was to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a day later. Officials expect discussion on formats for the four months of "proximity talks" to which Abbas agreed last week after a year of demanding Israel end settlement building before negotiations could resume.

Though violence is low compared to the bloodshed in the early part of the last decade, tensions are rising over land and holy sites around Jerusalem and the West Bank since Netanyahu came to power at the head of a right-led coalition a year ago, adding urgency to U.S. and European pressure for peace talks.

Clashes on Friday between Palestinians and Israeli forces at Jerusalem's flashpoint al-Aqsa mosque drew a call for restraint all round from the U.N. Security Council and an accusation from Abbas that Israeli "provocation" aimed to wreck peace moves and risked sparking a "war of religion" across the Middle East.

Abbas, who won backing on Saturday from his Fatah party's Central Committee for the return to talks, accused Netanyahu of intransigence on Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory that, he said, had brought the peace process close to collapse.

"The peace process has almost reached a dead end," he said in a speech in Ramallah, citing Netanyahu's refusal to stand by compromise offers made by his predecessor before Abbas broke off prior negotiations in late 2008 over Israel's offensive in Gaza.

"DARK FUTURE"

Despite a temporary, partial freeze on building in the West Bank, the expansion of Jewish settlements on land occupied since 1967, as well as an Israeli heritage plan announced last month to include West Bank religious sites "threaten ... to open the door to a dark future that awaits us all," he said.

"The Israeli government continues to procrastinate to gain time and strengthen its control of the occupied territories to prevent any realistic possibility of establishing an independent, viable ... state of Palestine," Abbas added.

Netanyahu's government has said it is willing to discuss any issue with Abbas but has made clear that, particularly given the strength of Abbas's rivals in the hardline, Islamist Hamas movement which controls the Gaza Strip and is popular elsewhere, an early deal delivering a Palestinian state is unlikely.

The prime minister has also dismissed calls for Israel to give up control of all Jerusalem and allow the east of the city, captured in 1967, to be the capital of such a Palestinian state.

A demonstration against Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem by several thousand Palestinians and Israeli peace activists passed off peacefully on Saturday night. Trouble had been feared with settlers who claim a religious right to all of the city.

In the West Bank, relatives buried six members of a single Palestinian family who were killed when their car collided with an Israeli military vehicle on Friday. Reflecting popular anger, officials from Fatah said the soldiers were to blame.

Sources on both sides have said they expect Mitchell to secure agreement on a format of talks between negotiators to begin possibly in Washington or elsewhere abroad fairly soon.

The sources also concur that the "proximity" element, whereby U.S. officials shuttled between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, may not last long before talks become more direct.

The "proximity" label may have helped Abbas retreat from his condition that a settlement freeze must precede talks. He won Arab League backing last week for four months of negotiation.

But sources on both sides said negotiators, long familiar with each other, may resume face-to-face talks before long.

Few on either side hold out much hope of a compromise and many question how far Obama will devote Washington's resources to this intractable problem at a time of competing challenges, not least Western efforts to curb Iran's nuclear programme.

U.S. officials say details of how the negotiations will be resumed are likely after Mitchell ends his meetings on Monday.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta and Tom Perry in Ramallah, Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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