On Sharm el-Sheikh negotiations eve:

Erekat says negotiations to stop if settlements construction continue

U.S. president asks Netanyahu to freeze settlements, administration speaks of difficulties

Assad briefed on rules of French mediation over Golan

The US special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, said that the Middle East peace talks were ''headed in the right'' direction following the conclusion of the second summit this month between Israel and the Palestinians.

Speaking after the talks at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Senator Mitchell was nevertheless unable to offer any evidence of progress between the two sides.

On the thorny issue of illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, Senator Mitchell repeated the view of the Obama administration that Israel must extend the freeze on settlement construction beyond September 26 if future talks are to have any chance of success.

''We think it makes sense to extend the moratorium especially given that the talks are moving in a constructive direction,'' Senator Mitchell said.

He said Washington was aware that ''this is a politically sensitive issue in Israel'' and the US had also had called on the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, to ''take steps that help, encourage and facilitate this peace process''.

He clarified that both sides must continue the negotiations, which would remain discreet, adding that the direct talks were crucial for both sides.

''Our common goal remains two states for two peoples,'' Senator Mitchell said.

Earlier, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, had separate meetings with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Abbas. Netanyahu and Abbas then had a face-to-face meeting hosted by Clinton to try to agree to a way forward on a range of issues, in particular future Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.

Senator Mitchell said after the meeting: ''President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu continue to agree that these negotiations, whose goal is to resolve all core issues, can be completed in one year.''

He said negotiations would continue in Jerusalem with Clinton taking part and that the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams would meet again ''in the coming days'' before further talks at the leadership level.

''Today the parties have begun a serious discussion on core issues,'' Senator Mitchell said. ''President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu also reiterated their intent to approach these negotiations in good faith and with a seriousness of purpose.''

Abbas has threatened to pull out of the talks if Israel does not extend the moratorium on building Jewish settlements.

Speaking before the start of the talks, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, repeated the threat that ''any decision to resume construction in the settlements, in any form, will mean the end of the negotiations''.

Pressure to extend the freeze is coming mainly from abroad, but Netanyahu is also facing pressure from within his ruling Likud party not to extend it.

An opinion poll published by the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth suggests that a majority of the Israeli public also opposes extending the settlement freeze.

President Barack Obama called Friday for Israel to extend its moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank as a good-will gesture to move peace talks with the Palestinians forward.

During a wide-ranging news conference at the White House, Obama said that while the politics of extending the moratorium would be difficult for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, given his conservative government coalition, he had nonetheless asked Netanyahu to extend it when they met recently in Washington.

“What I’ve said to Prime Minister Netanyahu is that given, so far, the talks are moving forward in a constructive way, it makes sense to extend that moratorium,” Obama said, in remarks that took some administration officials by surprise.

Obama said he had also told Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, that he, too, had to make gestures to Israel to keep the peace talks going. The negotiations began last week in Washington.

“You’ve got to show the Israeli public that you are serious and constructive in these talks so that the politics for Prime Minister Netanyahu, if he were to extend the settlements moratorium, would be a little bit easier,” Obama said he had told Abbas.

Obama’s remarks on Friday were significant because the settlement construction moratorium, which is scheduled to expire Sept. 26, is looming as the first hurdle in the nascent peace talks. His comments surprised some administration officials because of a customary concern that the United States not appear to be pushing Israel.

But a member of the administration said American officials had already been privately prodding their Israeli counterparts to look for ways to extend the moratorium. In many ways, Obama was simply acknowledging an open secret.

Israeli officials have given no indication that they would extend the moratorium, and Abbas has said he would walk away from the negotiations if settlement construction resumed.

Obama acknowledged the pressures Abbas faced from those who opposed the talks.

“I think President Abbas came here despite great misgivings and pressure from the other side, because he understood the window for creating a Palestinian state is closing,” Obama said. “And there are a whole bunch of parties in the region who purport to be friends of the Palestinians, and yet do everything they can to avoid the path that would actually lead to a Palestinian state, would actually lead to their goal.”

Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told a French envoy this week that a peace agreement between Syria and the present Israeli government is “hard to imagine”.

The official news agency quoted Assad as saying that Syria was hoping to see progress on an accord with Israel but that “Israeli policies make that hard to imagine”.

He was speaking to Claude Cousseran, a French presidential envoy entrusted with trying to re-launch negotiations between the two sides.

Cousseran, a former ambassador to Damascus, delivered a message from President Nicolas Sarkozy to the Syrian leader, the official Sana news agency said.

Assad told Cousseran that Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbor with whom it has been strengthening ties, must play a role if peace talks between Syria and Israel were to resume.

Assad said any new talks must build on four rounds of indirect talks that were mediated by Turkey, breaking down during the Israeli offensive on Gaza in 2008.

In May, relations between Israel and Turkey worsened when Israeli soldiers killed nine Turks aboard an aid ship trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

“President Assad affirmed that Syria seeks a just and comprehensive peace and the importance of co-coordinating with Turkey in this regard,” the agency said.

Syria regards France as a counterweight to the US, a close Israeli ally that is also seeking to re-launch talks between Syria and Israel and is supervising renewed direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The Syrian government did not criticize the Palestinian-Israeli talks but said all Palestinian factions must be represented. It has also allowed exiled Hamas leaders to voice vehement opposition to the negotiations from Damascus.

Syria says an Israeli commitment to withdraw from the whole of the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967, was needed before talks with Israel could resume.

Israel said it could resume the talks without conditions, although Israeli President Shimon Peres accused Syria in April of supplying Scud missiles to Hezbollah, which is also supported by Iran.

In August, Sarkozy chose Cousseran to act as his special envoy to help kick-start peace talks between Israel and Syria. Assad told Cousseran he was “grateful” for French support aimed at reviving the peace process.