US Mideast Envoy Heads to Jerusalem in Attempt to Save Peace Talks

Jerusalem – Washington’s special Mideast envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine, sped to Jerusalem Tuesday in an attempt to keep the U.S.-led Israeli-Palestinian talks from collapsing weeks after they began.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders re-committed themselves to the peace process even as they traded statements over the most recent crisis Tuesday. The two sides already have agreed to meet at a summit in Paris next month.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas said that the crisis was caused by Israel’s renewed construction of Jewish West Bank settlements — communities built on land the Palestinians say is earmarked for their future state.

“Whoever decides to continue to build settlements and provide aid and protection to them decides to halt the negotiations,” Abbas said. He added that less than a day after he stood on the White House lawn and agreed to direct negotiations, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters in Ramallah that the Palestinian Authority would “immediately cease and desist” all talks if Israel resumed its settlement building.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he hoped that negotiations would continue, though he gave no indication that he was willing to extend the 10-month settlement freeze that ended Sunday.

“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.

Jewish settler groups celebrated the end of the freeze by pouring cement to lay the foundation of dozens of new buildings.

Despite a strong Palestinian condemnation, U.S. officials convinced Palestinians to allow time to reach a compromise.

“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,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington. “Are we frustrated? Of course, we’re frustrated. But we understand that these are just very, very difficult (issues).”

Crowley said he hoped that moderate states in the Arab League would grant the Palestinians approval to continue the talks at a meeting set for Monday. He said Mitchell will be visiting the various capitals in advance of the Arab League meeting.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman appeared on a collision course of their own.

Netanyahu responded sharply to a speech by Lieberman on Tuesday that contradicted the official Israeli position on the peace talks.

Lieberman surprised the U.N. General Assembly with his own plans for a temporary peace deal — including a draft proposal for an eventual population and territory swap.

The controversial plan would transfer Israel’s Arab population to a newly created Palestinian state.

Netanyahu’s office said in a statement that “Lieberman’s address was not coordinated with the prime minister” and didn’t reflect the consensus of the Israeli government. “Netanyahu is the one handling the negotiations on Israel’s behalf. The various issues surrounding a peace agreement will be discussed and decided only at the negotiating table, and nowhere else,” it said.

Crowley said that the differences between Netanyahu and Lieberman should be left to the Israeli government to explain. He added, however, that the White House was “not surprised. We knew Prime Minister Netanyahu faces some tough domestic politics issues.”

Netanyahu heads a right-wing coalition that largely supports the settler movement. Though he’s asked members of his government to show restraint and not appear at the celebration rallies held across the settlements, a number of officials already have done so.

Members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party even organized a 2,000-person celebration to lay the foundation of a new building in the settlement of Kiryat Netafim — a statement to the Israeli premier that they wouldn’t tolerate any extension of the freeze.

“Netanyahu simply doesn’t have a lot of room to maneuver,” said Likud lawmaker Danny Danon, a member of the Israeli Knesset.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent)