JERUSALEM (AFP) – US envoy George Mitchell was back in the Middle East on Tuesday in his latest bid to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations stalled by a bitter row over settlement building.
Mitchell’s return comes as the two sides were poised to resume their so-called “proximity talks” — indirect negotiations aimed at kick-starting the peace process which broke down 18 months ago.
The talks are widely expected to be relaunched in the next few days.
As Mitchell touched down in Israel late on Monday, US President Barack Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to press home the urgent need for fresh talks with the Palestinians.
Mitchell was to hold consultations with his team on Tuesday ahead of talks with Israeli officials on Wednesday, a US embassy spokesman said.
He is expected to meet with Netanyahu on Wednesday, and with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Friday.
Mitchell hopes to get the two sides to begin indirect talks, after direct negotiations were halted in December 2008 when Israel launched a devastating 22-day military offensive in the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinians had agreed in March to take part in the proximity talks but pulled out after Israel announced plans to build 1,600 homes in mainly Arab east Jerusalem.
The deeply controversial move angered Washington and came as US Vice President Joe Biden was in the region to promote the negotiations.
During his 20-minute conversation with Netanyahu, Obama pressed the importance of “substantive” proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and on the need for direct contacts to start soon, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Netanyahu had on Monday met with regional broker and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for talks focused on the resumption of indirect talks.
Abbas, who is currently in Saudi Arabia as part of a regional tour, is also expected to hold talks with the Egyptian leader on Thursday to discuss the peace process before returning to Ramallah.
After his talks with Mitchell, the Palestine Liberation Organisation is expected to endorse the resumption of indirect negotiations on Saturday, according to top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat.
The Arab League gave its green light on Saturday for the indirect talks to go ahead after the Palestinians received US assurances the east Jerusalem settlement expansion plan would be shelved.
Israel has limited settlement construction in the West Bank, but the 10-month moratorium adopted in November does not include east Jerusalem, occupied and annexed in 1967 in a move not recognised by the international community.
The Palestinians want the West Bank and Gaza for a future state, with east Jerusalem as its capital.