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World News

U.S. envoy presses for deal on Israeli settlements

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.S. envoy George Mitchell and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met for more than two hours on Tuesday without any sign of a deal on a settlement freeze crucial to restarting Middle East peace talks.

News of the success or failure of Mitchell’s mission appeared unlikely until at least Wednesday, when he and Netanyahu were due to meet again. He could also report on his talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.

“We hope to bring this phase of effort to a positive conclusion in the coming weeks,” Mitchell said later in Ramallah after those talks with Abbas. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat again demanded that Israel halt settlement before talks could resume on a peace deal to establish a Palestinian state.

Mitchell has been trying to work out a deal with a defiant Netanyahu over U.S. President Barack Obama’s demand that he halt construction in settlements in the occupied West Bank. Obama also wants Arab nations to take steps towards recognising Israel.

Resisting U.S. pressure and angering the Palestinians, Netanyahu has said he would be prepared to limit temporarily the scope of construction to help to revive peace talks suspended since December, but projects under way would continue.

A possible meeting at the U.N. General Assembly in New York next week involving Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas appeared to hang on the success of Mitchell’s current efforts.

Abbas has made a resumption of peace negotiations with Israel conditional on a construction freeze in settlements.

“GOOD TALKS”

Netanyahu’s office described the prime minister’s talks with Mitchell on Tuesday as good, but did not elaborate.

Last week, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak drew a U.S. rebuke by approving 455 building permits in settlements in the West Bank, land Israel captured from Jordan in a 1967 war and which Palestinians want as part of a future state.

The move was widely seen in Israel as a bid to placate settlers before any deal with Washington on construction limitations.

But Israel also has made clear it would continue building 2,500 settler homes already under construction and that any restrictions would not include Jewish housing in East Jerusalem, which it also captured in the fighting 42 years ago.

Some 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and in Arab East Jerusalem, also captured in 1967, alongside some three million Palestinians. The World Court calls the settlements illegal and Palestinians say the enclaves could deny them a viable state.

Additional reporting by Mohammad Assadi in Ramallah; Editing by Jon Boyle

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