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Middle East envoy urges calm after settlement row

AMMAN (Reuters) - U.S. envoy George Mitchell on Monday urged Israel and the Palestinians to observe a period of calm to rescue talks thrown into jeopardy by a dispute over new settlement plans in East Jerusalem.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (L) and Middle East Peace Envoy, George J. Mitchell give a statement following their meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman March 22, 2010. REUTERS/Majed Jaber

Israel’s announcement during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden two weeks ago that it would build 1,600 homes for Jews in occupied land near East Jerusalem embarrassed Washington and threatened planned indirect talks with the Palestinians.

“On behalf of the United States and the president, I urge all sides to exercise restraint. What is needed now is a period of calm and quiet, in which we can go forward in the efforts we are engaged,” Mitchell said after talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman.

The settlement issue, and growing violence in the occupied West Bank where Israeli forces have killed four Palestinians in two days, is threatening efforts to get peace talks under way.

Mitchell said Abbas expressed concern about the latest violence but was still optimistic that indirect discussions, known as “proximity talks,” would begin soon between the two sides after a 15-month hiatus in direct negotiations.

“We discussed a full range of issues, including our common desire to enter the proximity talks at the earliest possible time in a manner which we hope would lead to direct negotiations,” he added.


U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Monday stressed U.S. opposition to Israel’s policy of expanding Jewish settlements and said in a speech to the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby in Washington, that settlement building “undermines mutual trust and endangers the proximity talks.”

Abbas was quoted by the Palestinian news agency WAFA as warning the Israelis “not to drag us to what we do not like and to drag the Israelis to what they do not like.”

The Palestinian leader also denounced an incident in which Israeli soldiers shot dead two 19-year-old men it said had tried to stab a soldier on patrol near Nablus, as an “extremely grave matter,” the WAFA agency said.

Monday, Israeli troops shot and killed one of their own soldiers along the Gaza border while chasing after Palestinian infiltrators, three of whom were also captured.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Washington at the weekend after meeting Mitchell. He addresses AIPAC on Monday and meets President Barack Obama Tuesday.

The Palestinians were sticking publicly to their refusal to restart talks until Israel freezes settlement building.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters Abbas told Mitchell that Israel’s East Jerusalem settlement plans were undermining U.S. efforts to revive the peace process.

“Although we need to give proximity talks the chance they deserve, we must make sure that decisions by Israel to construct 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem and more to come must really stop and come to an end,” Erekat said.

Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah; Writing by Suleiman al-Khalidi and Allyn Fisher-Ilan