US envoy in new bid to get Israelis, Palestinians talking

The envoy starts sixth round of shuttle diplomacy between Israel, Palestine.

Last Updated: Jul 16, 2010, 10:42 AM IST

Jerusalem: US President Barack Obama`s Middle East peace envoy started his sixth round of shuttle diplomacy between the Israelis and Palestinians on Thursday seeking to move the two sides to direct talks for the first time in over 18 months.

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas` Fatah movement, however, urged its leader to stay away from the negotiating table, saying that indirect talks mediated through George Mitchell since May had so far yielded nothing.

As Mitchell was meeting Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, the US State Department said it expected that direct talks would nevertheless resume sooner or later.

"I think we have a strong belief that at some point in time direct negotiations will be renewed," spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters in Washington.

"Whether that`s days from now, weeks from now, I don`t think we`re in a position to say at this point."

That was a more cautious statement than those emanating from the White House last week when both Obama and visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said they hoped talks would be re-launched before an Israeli moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank expires in September.

In a July 07 interview on CNN television, Netanyahu challenged the Palestinian President to meet him face-to-face "right now, today, tomorrow, in Jerusalem, in Ramallah (his West Bank base) or anywhere else."

The Palestinians suspended direct talks in December 2008 after Israel launched a devastating offensive against the Gaza Strip and Abbas has said he will not renew them until there is progress on the contentious issues of borders and security.

"The lack of credibility and confidence resulting from the Israeli rejection of the indirect talks, which have achieved no progress, will become entrenched as `givens and facts` if there is a transition to direct talks," Abbas` Fatah movement said yesterday.

"That is something the Palestinian leadership has not and will not accept," it added.

Despite his public calls for direct talks, many Palestinians doubt that the hawkish Netanyahu and hardliners in his coalition government are ready to withdraw from the West Bank, including annexed Arab east Jerusalem -- Palestinian lands captured in 1967.

In a letter addressed to Mitchell, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat slammed recent decisions to expand Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem and other "illegal and provocative" Israeli policies.

He went on to accuse Israel of "flagrant violations" of past agreements going back to the 1990s.

PTI