RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday he was still working on a deal with Israel to halt West Bank settlement activity so peace talks can resume.
“We are discussing the issue but we didn’t conclude an agreement yet with the Israelis,” a senior Palestinian official quoted Mitchell as saying over a working dinner with Abbas.
President Barack Obama’s envoy has held top-level talks in Britain, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Egypt, and Israel over the past week. The official reported him as telling Abbas that everyone involved must do more over the coming weeks.
Mitchell told reporters Washington was doing “everything we can to achieve a comprehensive peace ... between Israelis and Palestinians, between Syria and the Israelis, between Israel and Lebanon and the normalization of relations between Israel and all of the countries in the region.”
The envoy said Obama wanted “an early return to meaningful negotiations and a prompt resolution of those negotiations,” and “that means that everyone must take steps, some of them difficult, some of them controversial to create the context ...”
Mitchell told Abbas that Obama was committed to the peace process, and was “determined and consistent.” He is due to see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday.
Obama’s demand for a freeze of Israeli settlements is in accordance with a 2003 U.S.-backed peace “road map.” It has met stiff resistance from Netanyahu, causing the most serious rift in U.S.-Israeli ties in a decade.
In talks with Israel leaders on Sunday and Monday, Mitchell emphasized American friendship and the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security.
He informed Abbas there was “still a gap between us and the Israelis on the settlements issue,” the Palestinian official told Reuters.
Abbas refuses to resume peace talks frozen for the last six months until Netanyahu agrees to freeze all settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- occupied territory since the 1967 Middle East war.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat issued a statement after Monday’s talks saying the only way to return credibility to the peace process is for everyone to honor his commitments.
Erekat said the “Quartet” of Middle East peace mediators -- made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- must “play a constructive role in holding the parties accountable for honoring their commitments.”
“The success of the peace process will depend on the effective ability of the Quartet to oversee and report on ... both sides in carrying out their obligations,” he said.
“Israel shows no intention of stopping its illegal settlement activity, particularly in and around occupied East Jerusalem,” Erekat said.
But in a move that might give Netanyahu greater flexibility if he were to try to meet U.S. demands, the prime minister won preliminary parliamentary approval on Monday for a bill that would help him woo fresh supporters to his government.
The bill would allow parties to break up into smaller factions than currently permitted, giving Netanyahu an opportunity to seek supporters among the opposition.
Netanyahu’s coalition has a solid majority of 74 in the 120-member parliament, but more than a couple of dozen fall in the pro-settler category and could be expected to oppose any deal to halt settlement activity in the occupied West Bank.
Mitchell earlier praised Israel for easing Palestinian movement in the West Bank by removing some of its checkpoints. But Erekat said moving a “handful” of roadblocks changed little.
“There are still currently more than 600 obstacles to movement and access in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. These obstacles serve no security purpose. In fact, 80 percent of them serve only to divide Palestinians from Palestinians.”
Writing by Douglas Hamilton; editing by Myra MacDonald