September 18, 2009 / 7:06 AM / 10 years ago

No sign of deal as Obama envoy leaves Mideast

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Washington’s peace envoy ended a week of shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East on Friday with little yet to show for his efforts as Israel and the Palestinians dug in to opposing positions on Jewish settlements.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) stands with U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell during their meeting in Jerusalem September 18, 2009, in this handout picture released by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO). REUTERS/Avi Ohayon/GPO/Handout

U.S. President Barack Obama may yet host a summit next week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during the U.N. General Assembly in New York. But his envoy George Mitchell has more work to do before any substantive resumption of peace negotiations.

Each side blamed the other for failure, but pledged to keep talking. Neither is keen to refuse Obama’s invitation, but on both sides officials acknowledge that a photograph and handshake at the United Nations will not be enough to relaunch the peace process without substantial shifts in negotiating positions.

“Mitchell’s shuttle visit has ended without agreement,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat after the former senator met Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah for talks that were sandwiched between meetings with Netanyahu in nearby Jerusalem.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly acknowledged the disappointing result.

“Of course we hoped to have an agreement. Of course we were hoping for some kind of breakthrough,” Kelly told reporters. “This is going to demand a lot of patience, and the U.S. is ready to stay patient, stay engaged, and make all the efforts necessary to reach this goal.”

Netanyahu, in power since March at the head of a right-wing coalition skeptical of Palestinian intentions, is weathering the sourest spell in Israeli-U.S. relations for a decade by defying the new U.S. president’s demand that he curb the settlements.

Mitchell, a former senator credited with helping bring peace to Northern Ireland, maintained his usual silence on his work.

Israeli officials said Netanyahu, whose right-wing cabinet includes strong pro-settler elements, had offered him a freeze on building in the West Bank for nine months — longer than the six months Israel previously indicated it would consider.

Mitchell has been pressing for a year’s freeze, they added.

“The Palestinians showed no flexibility on settlements while Israel did,” an official on Netanyahu’s staff said.

OPPOSING POSITIONS

Palestinians, who say expanding settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem will deny them a viable state, want a full halt to building until a final peace, which might involve Israel keeping some settlements in a land swap. They reject Netanyahu’s insistence on excluding East Jerusalem from any freeze.

Erekat said: “The senator ... told us that he did not reach an agreement with the Israelis.

“We reiterated that there are no middle ground solutions for settlements. A settlement freeze is a settlement freeze.”

Abbas has also dismissed a call from Netanyahu for him to recognize Israel formally as a specifically Jewish state.

The two sides are also at odds over the scope and pace of further negotiations, officials say, with Netanyahu reluctant to commit to a timetable, possibly as tight as two years, for a deal that would create a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Obama has urged a halt to settlement expansion, as demanded by the 2003, U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, to help build confidence for peace talks. Keen to end the six-decade conflict to help stabilize the region, he also wants Arab states to reach out to Israel and Abbas to curb anti-Israel militants.

Talks stalled in December when Israel attacked the Gaza Strip and remained so after Netanyahu was elected with a mandate to be skeptical of Palestinian peace overtures. These have been hampered by violence and threats against Israel, notably from Gaza, which is controlled by Abbas’s Islamist rivals Hamas.

“We agreed to continue meetings with the Americans,” Erekat said. “Senator Mitchell will continue his efforts in New York and after New York,” he added, referring to the U.N. assembly.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) shakes hands with U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell during their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah September 18, 2009, REUTERS/Thaer Ganaim/PPO/Handout

Palestinian officials said a three-way meeting in New York was possible but may not mean a true resumption of direct talks. The State Department’s Kelly said he did not want to predict what might happen.

An Israeli official said Netanyahu would be in New York on Wednesday and might yet meet Abbas. “We should restart the talks with the Palestinians immediately,” the official said. “It’s not the Israeli side that is holding up the resumption of talks.”

Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah and Ori Lewis; Editing by Jon Hemming and Alison Williams

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