U.S. envoy sees Netanyahu in bid to save talks

JERUSALEM Wed Sep 29, 2010 4:10pm EDT

U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell speaks during a news conference after meeting with Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, near Beirut, September 17, 2010. REUTERS/ Mohamed Azakir

U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell speaks during a news conference after meeting with Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, near Beirut, September 17, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/ Mohamed Azakir

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The United States is "determined more than ever" to achieve Middle East peace, its envoy to the region said on Wednesday during talks in Israel aimed at salvaging negotiations with the Palestinians.

There was no sign, in public comments at a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the envoy, George Mitchell, of any progress toward a formula that could avert a threatened Palestinian walkout over settlement building.

Mitchell said President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had asked him to deliver a message to Israelis and Palestinians assuring them of their commitment to achieving comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

"We knew this would be a road with many bumps -- and there have been many bumps, and that continues to this day," Mitchell said in a video released by Israel's Government Press Office of comments he made at the meeting.

"But we are not deterred. We are, to the contrary, determined more than ever to proceed to realize the common objective which we all share, of a Middle East that is at peace, with security and prosperity for the people of Israel, the Palestinians and for all the people in the region."

Peace talks that began on September 2 were plunged into crisis after a 10-month moratorium on new housing construction in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank expired on Monday.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to quit the negotiations unless the measure is extended, but has put off a decision until an Arab League forum discusses the issue on October 4.

Netanyahu, whose governing coalition is dominated by pro-settler parties including his own right-wing Likud, had rebuffed calls by Obama and other foreign leaders to extend the partial freeze.

PEACE AND SECURITY

"I am committed and the government is committed to make an effort to reach a peace agreement that will preserve the security and vital interests of the state of Israel," Netanyahu said, echoing remarks he made a day earlier.

"We are committed to following this path. I hope the good talks that I began with (Abbas) will continue without interruption so that we can try to achieve this goal," the Israeli leader said.

Mitchell, who met Netanyahu at the prime minister's private home in Caesarea, central Israel, was due to see Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team, said on Voice of Palestine radio that "Israel alone will shoulder the responsibility for the collapse" of the peace process if it does not halt the construction in settlements.

Failure to keep peace talks alive would be a major political embarrassment for Obama, who faces the prospect of losses by his Democratic party in congressional mid-term elections on November 2.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States was not giving up hope that somehow the process could be rescued.

"We're seeing restraint on both sides and we have a few days where we're hoping that we can work through these issues and keep the talks moving forward. I think they are actually listening very intently to what we're telling them," the official said in Washington on Tuesday.

Netanyahu has held out the prospect of limiting the scope of renewed building in the West Bank, land that Israel captured from Jordan in a 1967 war and which Palestinians want as part of a future state.

Palestinians fear settlements will deny them a contiguous and viable state. Nearly 500,000 Jews live in well over 100 settlements established across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The World Court deems settlements illegal but Israel disputes this. Some 2.5 million Palestinians live in the same areas.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington; Editing by David Stamp)

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