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WEST BANK: Mitchell searching for 'common ground' to salvage negotiations

September 30, 2010 |  9:56 am

U.S. special envoy George Mitchell, who arrived Tuesday on a Mideast trip to try to salvage the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, seemed determined to continue his efforts to bridge the fast-growing gap between Israel and the Palestinians on the issue of settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.

Mitchell held one round of separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the last couple of days. He will now hold a second round in the next couple of days with both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, looking for what he called “common ground between the parties” to salvage the month-old direct negotiations.

It is not yet clear whether he will succeed in bringing Abbas and Netanyahu together again at the same table, as was the case before the settlement freeze expired Sept. 26.

The Palestinians said they would not continue in the negotiations if the freeze were not extended for at least three more months to give the talks a chance to progress. But they said they would give their final answer after an Arab League committee meeting, originally scheduled for Oct. 4 but later postponed to Oct. 6, convenes in Cairo.

The delay in the Arab League committee meeting and Mitchell’s rounds between Jerusalem and Ramallah in the coming days created the feeling among some that the U.S. might have a chance to come up with some way to keep the negotiations alive. The American efforts are expected to get a boost from the European Union, whose foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, will throw the weight  of the EU behind the peace efforts.

Ashton -- whose EU, a partner in the Middle East quartet along with the U.S., Russia and the U.N., was deliberately kept away from the Washington summit that kick started the direct negotiation on Sept. 2 -- decided to change her program and visit the region for urgent meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas. She was heeding an appeal from her U.S. counterpart, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to help out. Ashton believes Netanyahu should extend the freeze to prevent the collapse of the negotiations.

Mitchell’s first round of talks in Ramallah were described as “serious and in-depth,” according to chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

But the Palestinians would not yet talk about breakthroughs or anything close to a way out of the impasse, preferring to wait and see what Mitchell would bring with him when he returned to Ramallah on Friday after meeting with Israeli leaders.

Mitchell remained determined but preferred not to mention the controversial and sensitive issue of settlements in public, pinning possible collapse of the peace process on extremists rather than on Israel’s policies.

“We are determined to continue, and we are continuing our efforts to find common ground between the parties to enable the direct negotiations to continue in a manner that we hope will lead to an agreement,” Mitchell said after his meeting with Abbas. “We recognized and said at the outset that there would be difficulties, there would be ups and downs, and there will be many obstacles to the peace process, including some who would like to see the process fail and take action including the use of violence to prevent it from succeeding.”

-- Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank