Jerusalem: International diplomatic efforts to salvage the peace talks kicked into high gear on Friday with top EU and US officials set for a flurry of meetings in Jerusalem and Ramallah.
After a day of intensive talks in the West Bank city of Ramallah, US envoy George Mitchell turned his attention to the Israelis, meeting in the morning with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Premier`s office said.
He was then to head back to Ramallah for talks with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas at around 2:00 pm (1200 GMT) for what would be their second meeting in 24 hours, a Palestinian official said.
Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton held a breakfast meeting in Ramallah with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad after which she was heading to Jerusalem to meet Netanyahu, her spokeswoman said.
She had also met with Abbas on Thursday shortly after arriving for 24 hours of intensive talks as part of US and EU efforts to rescue peace negotiations, which began on September 02 but are facing collapse over Israel`s refusal to extend a ban on West Bank settlement building.
Mitchell and Abbas had held two hours of talks at the Palestinian leader`s Muqataa headquarters on Thursday, but there was no word about the outcome.
"We are determined to continue our efforts to find common ground between the parties to enable the direct negotiations to continue," Mitchell said after the talks, pledging to "continue our efforts intensively" in the coming days.
Both Mitchell and Ashton are fighting to persuade Abbas to stick with the negotiations despite Israel`s refusal to extend restrictions on settlement building in the occupied West Bank.
They are also hoping to persuade Netanyahu to reimpose the building ban -- a step which until now he has steadfastly refused to take, largely due to internal political constraints.
The flurry of diplomatic activity came as Israeli media dissected reports that Netanyahu had turned down a US offer of a comprehensive package of benefits in exchange for a two-month extension of the freeze on new settlement building, laid out in a letter from US President Barack Obama.
The White House denied the existence of any letter, and Israeli officials refused to comment on the reports which emerged earlier this week.
Israel`s refusal to extend the moratorium has brought the fledgling talks to the brink of collapse, with the Palestinians threatening to walk out if more Jewish settlements are built on land they want for a future state.
The moratorium expired on Sunday, but the Palestinians have said they will reserve a final decision on whether to withdraw from the talks until after Abbas has conferred with Arab foreign ministers.
That meeting had been due to take place in Cairo on October 04 but the Arab League postponed the summit to October 06 in order to help US-led efforts to save the talks, a spokesman said on Thursday.
Cairo is pushing for the talks to be further delayed until October 08-09, when Arab diplomats are gathering in Libya, Egypt`s official MENA news agency said.
Efforts to broker a compromise appeared to be flagging on Friday after Netanyahu`s apparent refusal of incentives from Obama, including assurances on security issues and weapons in the event of a Middle East deal.
Details of the alleged offer were outlined in an article by US analyst David Makovsky who has ties to Obama adviser Dennis Ross.
An analysis in Israel`s Maariv newspaper suggested Netanyahu turned the offer down because he was afraid of being forced into a quick agreement over the borders of a future Palestinian state.
"His real fear was not two more months of the freeze," wrote Ben Caspit.
"Netanyahu feared that if he extended the freeze, he would end up in the killing fields. In 60 days, he will be under heavy siege to complete the negotiations over the borders, so that after the freeze there will be no need for another extension," he said.
"The last thing Bibi (Netanyahu) wants now is negotiations over the borders."