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JERUSALEM (AP) – Washington’s Mideast envoy pressed on with his sputtering, year-old peace mission Sunday, shuttling between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an effort to break a stubborn deadlock over Israeli settlement construction.
President Barack Obama took office last year with the ambitious aim of putting Mideast peacemaking on a fast track. Instead, it has stalled over Israel’s settlements on occupied lands, forcing the American leader to acknowledge that he underestimated the domestic political forces at play in the region and overreached in expecting a quick breakthrough in Mideast peacemaking.
His envoy, George Mitchell, arrived in the region late last week in yet another attempt to break the logjam and met separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Early Sunday, he met with Netanyahu again and was scheduled to hold another meeting with Abbas later in the day in the Jordanian capital, Amman.
Netanyahu said at the start of Israel’s weekly Cabinet meeting that Mitchell brought new ideas to the meeting on Sunday but gave no details.
In his meeting with Mitchell on Friday, Abbas stood firm by his demand that Israel freeze all construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem before he resumes talks. Netanyahu has agreed to slow construction in the West Bank, but has not halted it totally or imposed any limitations on building in east Jerusalem.
Israel annexed that sector of the city, home to sacred Jewish, Muslim and Christian sites, shortly after capturing it and the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war. The international community does not recognize the annexation and the Palestinians claim east Jerusalem for their future capital.
The Israeli leader heads a coalition largely opposed to the sweeping territorial concessions that would be necessary to clinch a peace deal with the Palestinians. He himself had long refused to endorse the concept of Palestinian statehood, doing so only in June under intense U.S. pressure.
Hours after his meeting with Mitchell, Netanyahu was to participate in two tree-planting ceremonies in West Bank settlements celebrating the Jewish arbor day. His participation delivered a clear political message to Jewish settlers who vehemently oppose his decision to slow West Bank construction. Both settlements lie within blocs Israel expects to keep in any final accord with the Paelstinians.
The Palestinians are afraid that Washington’s inability to get Israel to even temporarily freeze settlement construction augurs ill for any Israeli concessions on tougher issues like partitioning Jerusalem.
Abbas is also worried his already battered standing among the Palestinian people would suffer further if he resumes talks without at least a settlement freeze.
The Palestinian leader is locked in a fierce rivalry with Islamic Hamas militants who overran the Gaza Strip in 2007 and believe only violence, not negotiations, will pressure Israel to yield war-won land.