Abbas urges U.S. to press Israel to stop settlements building

President Mubarak says Egypt committed to its duty towards peace despite offences

Jones conveys to Abbas Obama’s commitment to two-state solution, encourages him to resume negotiations

Israel threatens to start West Bank incursion if Goldstone report is not closed

Barak gets “limited” reception in Turkey amid diplomatic row

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has signaled a readiness to resume peace talks with Israel if the United States were to set out specific goals for negotiations, official Palestinian news agency Wafa said Saturday.

The remarks published as Washington's peace envoy George Mitchell was due to launch a fresh round of mediation talks, were the first sign Abbas may ease his months-long refusal to resume negotiations before Jewish settlement building stopped.

Abbas told his Fatah group's Revolutionary Council on Friday, "Either Israel commits to a halt of settlement, and the terms of reference, or America comes and says this is the endgame with regard to defining borders, the refugee issue, and other final issues, so we can reach a political solution."

Abbas met U.S. national security advisor Jim Jones on Thursday and was quoted separately that day as saying he stuck by his insistence that settlement expansion be halted in the West Bank before negotiations stalled since 2008 may resume.

He has rejected a limited, 10-month construction freeze ordered by Israel in November as insufficient, but the U.S. has sought to coax Abbas to resume talks with Israel by urging the sides to focus on future borders of a Palestinian state.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said agreeing on borders and the status of Jerusalem could sidestep a deadlock over Jewish settlements.

American and regional officials have said the United States is looking at what assurances it might provide the Palestinians and Israelis -- possibly in the form of letters -- that might help the parties get back to the table.

Netanyahu has said for months he was ready to resume peace talks unconditionally. He has refused to halt settlement building in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in a 1967 war and annexed as part of its capital in a move not recognized internationally.

But Netanyahu has not ruled out negotiation on any issue, though if he agreed to discuss Jerusalem's future he could face problems within his right-wing governing coalition, and may then need support from center and left-wing parliamentary parties.

In Cairo, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak said the current split in the Palestinian ranks only serves Israel’s interests, adding the delayed reconciliation among the Palestinians would lead to a delay in reaching a solution to the issue, an increase in the number of Israeli settlements and aggravation of the suffering of the Palestinian people whether in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank.

“Egypt does not impose anything on the Palestinians and they were the ones who drafted the reconciliation paper,” Mubarak said in statements during his tour to inaugurate several development and service projects in Kafr el-Sheikh governorate.

President Mubarak denied reports that Egypt had included changes to what the members of Fatah and Hamas have agreed in their paper, adding the demands by Hamas to postpone the elections from January to June were approved.

On the other hand, US President Barack Obama's national security adviser James Jones held talks with Palestinian and Israeli leaders on Thursday aimed at furthering US-led peace efforts.

"Jones confirmed Obama's determination to arrive at a comprehensive peace in the Middle East despite the difficulties, and said the key to peace in the region is to resolve the Palestinian issue," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP after Jones met President Mahmoud Abbas.

The US envoy later met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for talks that "focused on jump-starting the peace process with the Palestinians and regional security threats," an Israeli government statement said.

Jones did not speak to reporters during the regional tour, which has also taken him to Saudi Arabia and comes after months of US-led peace efforts.

Obama has been struggling to get the two sides back to the negotiating table since he assumed office nearly a year ago but has thus far failed to get Israel to completely halt settlements or secure Arab concessions to the Jewish state.

The Palestinians have said they will not resume talks -- suspended a year ago during Israel's war on Hamas in Gaza -- until Israel halts all settlement building in the occupied territories.

Israel has enacted a 10-month moratorium on new settlement projects but has excluded mostly Arab east Jerusalem, public buildings and projects already under way. The Palestinians have rejected the move as insufficient.

The request by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the United Nations Human Rights Council last year to postpone the vote on the Goldstone report followed a particularly tense meeting with the head of the Shin Bet security service, Israeli newspaper Haaretz has learned.

At the October meeting in Ramallah, Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin told Abbas that if he did not ask for a deferral of the vote on the critical report on last year's military operation, Israel would turn the West Bank into a "second Gaza."

Diskin, who reports directly to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, threatened to revoke the easing of restrictions on movement within the West Bank that had been implemented earlier last year. He also said Israel would withdraw permission for mobile phone company Wataniya to operate in the Palestinian Authority. That would have cost the PA tens of millions of dollars in compensation payments to the company.

A PA official close to Abbas told Haaretz that Diskin came to the Muqata compound in Ramallah in October with a foreign diplomatic delegation, and that a senior Israel Defense Forces officer made similar threats to other PA leaders at around the same time.

The Shin Bet said in response that it does not comment on Diskin's schedule or meetings.

Abbas told a Palestinian commission of inquiry investigating the vote's deferral that he accepted responsibility for the decision, and denied that his choice was a result of outside pressure.

Commission chairman and PA legislator Azmi Shuaibi told Al-Watan TV at the time that in a three-hour session Abbas admitted to the panel that he had made a mistake in asking the UN body to defer the vote and said he was sorry that the affair had been exploited for political ends.

Thirty-three of the UN council's 47 members supported the PA's initial endorsement of the Goldstone report. The matter was slated to be transferred from the UN General Assembly to the Security Council, when to the surprise of diplomats on all sides the PA delegation agreed at the last moment to defer the vote until March 2010.

The Goldstone commission recommended that Israel be given until March to complete an independent inquiry into its conduct during the offensive and to try any figures suspected of war crimes. Failure by either Israel or Hamas to conduct an open inquiry into their conduct would result in the case being referred to the International Criminal Court.

The United States is now seeking to persuade Israel to conduct such an investigation, and to release its findings on a number of incidents in which civilians were killed during the fighting.

In Ankara, Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak began a one-day visit to Turkey Sunday in the wake of a severe diplomatic row between the two countries, eager to mend fences with a Muslim ally sliding away.

Barak's trip was the highest-level bilateral visit since Israel's war on the Gaza Strip last year prompted an unprecedented barrage of criticism from the Islamist-rooted government in Ankara.

He visited the tomb of Turkey's secularist founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk before scheduled meetings with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul. The talks were to focus on arms deals, Israeli public radio reported.

Turkish officials are currently in Israel to test unmanned aircraft that Israeli companies have manufactured for Turkey's army under a joint 183-million-dollar project, long delayed amid technical snags and political tensions.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seen by some as the man at the centre of bilateral tensions, and President Abdullah Gul, were not available to meet the Israeli minister, citing programs outside Ankara.

Barak, whose Likud party is in favor of maintaining close ties with Turkey, insisted on making the visit despite a row that brought Ankara to the verge of recalling its ambassador from Tel Aviv.

The storm broke Monday when Danny Ayalon, the deputy of Israel's ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, gave Turkey's ambassador a public dressing down as he protested a Turkish television series for depicting "Israel and Jews as baby-snatchers and war criminals".

As the unexpecting ambassador smiled, Ayalon turned to reporters and told them in Hebrew to pay attention that the envoy was made to sit on a low couch and that the Turkish flag was removed from their table.

Bowing to pressure from a furious Ankara, Ayalon sent a letter of apology to Ambassador Oguz Celikkol on Wednesday, cooling a row that had threatened to plunge the two already estranged allies into a serious crisis.

Once-flourishing bilateral ties took a sharp downturn last year amid Israel's war on Gaza and its persisting blockade of the impoverished Palestinian enclave.

In a memorable outburst, Erdogan stormed out of a debate at the World Economic Forum, accusing the Jewish state of "barbarian" acts and telling Israeli President Shimon Peres, sitting next to him, that "you know well how to kill people".

Ankara has said relations will continue to suffer unless Israel ends "the humanitarian tragedy" in Gaza and revives peace talks with the Palestinians.

Turkey's booming ties with one-time foe Syria and close contacts with Iran have made its criticism even harder for Israel to swallow and raised questions on whether Erdogan's government is taking a key Muslim-majority NATO member away from the West.

Turkey has been Israel's main regional ally since 1996 when the two signed a military cooperation accord.

But in October, Ankara excluded Israel from joint air exercises in central Turkey that have been held for years, angering Tel Aviv and prompting a rebuke from Washington.

The following month, Israel's trade minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer visited Ankara in an effort to mend fences, and Gul and Peres met at the sidelines of a UN climate summit in Denmark last month.