Mitchell fails to make breakthrough in Israel’s position but says would continue endeavors

Abbas disappointed as expectations on his resignation thrive

Egypt, Jordan affirm to Mitchell that there would be no place for negotiations as settlement construction goes on, Moussa speaks of alternatives

Abbas turns down U.S. proposal for partial settlement freeze

Jordan monarch stresses importance of U.S. role to overcome obstacles

U.S. envoy George J. Mitchell shuttled between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an intensive effort to save Middle East peace talks from collapsing, but failed to break an impasse over Israeli settlement building in the West Bank.

Mitchell told reporters at the end of his two-day mission that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had agreed "that we will continue our discussions," a reference to separate contacts with Washington.

Abbas has warned that he will halt direct talks unless Netanyahu extends a moratorium on new building in the settlements. Netanyahu, citing political pressures in his right-leaning coalition, has said the freeze will not be extended.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Abbas, said that "we didn't get any satisfactory answer from the Americans about the settlement freeze," adding that since the Israelis did not commit to a freeze, "we cannot go back to the negotiations."

Abbas is scheduled to consult with leaders of his Fatah party and the Palestine Liberation Organization before taking the matter to a committee of the Arab League.

Netanyahu said before meeting with Mitchell that he wanted the negotiations to continue.

Israeli media reported that Netanyahu had rebuffed a U.S. offer of incentives, including security assurances and support for a long-term presence of Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley, on the eastern border of a future Palestinian state, in return for a 60-day extension of the building moratorium.

Netanyahu's spokesman declined to comment, but an official quoted Netanyahu as telling aides that "everyone knows that measured and restrained building" in the settlements "in the coming year will have no influence on the peace map."

Key US Mideast allies Egypt and Jordan backed the Palestinian refusal to negotiate with Israel as long as it continues to build West Bank settlements, but they urged more efforts to salvage peace talks mediated by Washington.

US Mideast envoy George Mitchell held separate meetings with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo and Jordanian King Abdullah II in Amman.

“We understand the Palestinian position which calls for setting the appropriate environment and circumstances for negotiations to take place and continue,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abul-Gheit said after Mubarak met Mitchell.

“The current conditions are not favorable.” Israel refused last week to extend its 10-month moratorium on new construction in West Bank settlements, throwing the month-old peace talks into doubt because Palestinians have repeatedly threatened to quit if building resumes.

Abul-Gheit said the focus now should be on continued US and international efforts to pressure Israel to extend the construction moratorium.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says there is no point negotiating as long as settlements are eating up the land the Palestinians want for a future state.

Senior Palestinian officials backed Abbas’ refusal and said they are now considering alternatives to the direct negotiations if Israel doesn’t budge.

In Jordan, Abdullah met separately with Mitchell and Abbas and he said Israel’s refusal to stop settlements undermines peacemaking. But he stopped short of calling on the Palestinians to end negotiations.

A Royal Palace statement said Abdullah told Abbas that “you have Jordan’s full support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, which requires an end to Israel’s unilateral actions … primarily settlement building.” Another palace statement said Abdullah told Mitchell that the US role was crucial for peacemaking to continue.

Mitchell and the leaders discussed the impasse ahead of an Arab League later this week where Palestinians are expected to come to a decision on whether to continue talks with Israel.

Abbas told reporters in Jordan he would continue contacts with the Obama administration to press Israel on settlements.

“Certainly, we will not cut our relations with the Americans and we will continue our contacts to ensure that settlements stop in order for [direct] talks to resume,” Abbas said.

The first direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in two years were launched last month in Washington. The two sides then met face-to-face in Egypt and Jerusalem but disagreements over the settlement building curb derailed the negotiations, which are to address the borders of a future Palestinian state, the political status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Now, Mitchell is back to speaking separately with all the parties and consulting regional players to save the floundering process. “We knew when we began these efforts that there will be a lot of difficulties and obstacles,” Mitchell said after meeting Mubarak. “Despite the differences, both the government of Israel and the Palestinian authority asked us to continue these discussions and efforts.”

But the unanimous decision by dozens of senior members of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Abbas’ Fatah movement makes compromise increasingly unlikely.

“There will be no negotiations as long as settlement building continues,” senior Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rudeineh said after the three-hour meeting at Abbas’ headquarters.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that he is serious about reaching a deal within a year and has accused the Palestinians of wasting precious time over secondary issues.

Palestinian leaders warn that they will now begin to study alternatives, should talks collapse, and step up efforts to reconcile with the Islamic militant Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip by force from in 2007.

The Islamic militant group has repeatedly called on the Palestinian leader to quit the talks, saying they were futile.

The leader of the Hamas government in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, praised the decision to refuse to negotiate while settlement construction continued, saying Palestinian national reconciliation should take precedent.

But Haniyeh also stressed that the decision “must be followed up to show that it is not just a tactic but is a genuine desire to … work according to a unified national agenda.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is now in political limbo after having staked his career on the questionable proposition that a viable Palestinian state can be achieved through negotiations with Israel.

Negotiations are what make Mr. Abbas tick. But the direct talks with Israel, which began a month ago at the White House, are in danger of collapse after Israel's refused last week to renew a moratorium on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.

As a top member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1970s and 1980s, it was Abbas who established contact with dovish Jews and Israelis, and he was the Palestinian architect of the 1993 Oslo agreement with Israel on Palestinian self-rule. Unlike the late PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, and other PLO leaders who used armed struggle and violence, Abbas has always tended to prioritize diplomacy.

''Yasser Arafat had the olive branch and the gun. Abbas only has negotiations,'' says Mahmoud Ramhi, a Hamas representative of the Palestinian Legislative Council who is highly critical of Abbas.

Last month, at the United Nations General Assembly, Abbas stressed that the Palestinians are still adhering to the path of negotiation. ''In spite of the historic injustice, the desire to achieve a just peace guaranteeing rights and freedom has not diminished. Our wounded hands are still able to carry the olive branch from the rubble of the trees the occupation uproots every day.''

But having vowed not to engage in direct negotiations unless Israel reinstates the partial moratorium on the building of settlements, Abbas is signaling he is not willing to talk at any cost – at least for now. ''Israel must choose between peace and the settlements,'' he said in his UN speech.

Abbas's stress on diplomacy has gained him US support, funds for the Palestinian Authority, and wide international respect. But his lack of armed struggle credentials is anathema to many Palestinians.

At the entrance to al-Amary refugee camp near Ramallah, an arch has been erected proclaiming it the ''citadel of President Mahmoud Abbas.'' But inside the local branch of Abbas's Fatah movement, the sentiment does not back up the sign.

''He has never visited the camp and he sent someone in his name for the cornerstone laying of the arch,'' says Ahmed Issa, a young activist. ''He has done nothing for us on all levels. He is stopping the resistance and arresting resistance fighters."

Mahmoud Abu al-Ayan, a former member of Fatah's Aqsa brigades militia, adds: ''I blame [Abbas] for preventing us from resisting. Negotiations won't bring us forward. They will only drag things from worse to worse.'' He spoke wistfully of Arafat once visiting the camp and kissing the mother of a martyr.

The youths were watching a television station from Jordan broadcasting militant resistance songs, something banned from the official Palestinian Authority airwaves in keeping with Abbas's philosophy.

''This is a revolution of self esteem and we are prepared to confront the occupation,'' the singer crooned over the television.