US in last-ditch attempt to save Mideast talks

Frustrated by a new impasse, the White House sent its Mideast envoy to the region Tuesday in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the collapse of peace talks over Israel’s decision to allow new construction in West Bank settlements.

Israel refuses to renew a 10-month-old moratorium on housing starts that expired over the weekend, while the Palestinians say there’s no point in negotiating if settlements keep expanding on lands they want for their state.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has repeatedly threatened to quit the talks unless the freeze continues, has so far rejected informal Israeli proposals of a watered-down moratorium, such as building only in some settlements, Abbas advisers said Tuesday.

However, the Palestinian leader seemed reluctant to walk away from the negotiations, which began just a month ago. Even though the moratorium expired Sunday, he has given the U.S. another week to try to find a compromise, saying he will announce his decision only after Arab foreign ministers meet in Cairo on Monday.

With that deadline looming, U.S. envoy George Mitchell arrived in Israel on Tuesday in a last-minute push to close the gaps.

“We want the Palestinians to stay in the direct negotiations and we want the Israelis to demonstrate that it is in the Palestinian interest to stay in these negotiations,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley in Washington.

“Are we frustrated?” he said. “Of course, we’re frustrated. But we understand that these are just very very difficult (issues.)” Crowley expressed hope the Arab League would encourage Abbas to remain in the peace talks.

Mitchell was to meet early Wednesday with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a political centrist who, with the West Bank under military rule, has sweeping powers to veto or approve settlement projects.

Officials close to Barak have said he favors requiring any future settlement construction to receive his personal approval — a move that would in effect leave a building freeze in place. It remains unclear whether Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, supports the proposal.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Mitchell was to speak separately with Netanyahu and Abbas.

In a statement, Netanyahu said he hoped negotiations would continue, though he gave no indication he was willing to extend the settlement freeze. “I believe with a full heart that it is in our power to get to a framework agreement within a year, and to change the history of the Middle East,” he said.

The statement also said Netanyahu accepted an invitation from French President Nicolas Sarkozy to meet Abbas in Paris next month.