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U.S. Envoy Mitchell Ends Week in Mideast Without Breakthrough

Jewish housing goes up in East Jerusalem. The U.S. wants limits on Israeli construction there and in the West Bank.
Jewish housing goes up in East Jerusalem. The U.S. wants limits on Israeli construction there and in the West Bank. (By Dan Balilty -- Associated Press)

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By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 19, 2009

JERUSALEM, Sept. 18 -- White House special envoy George J. Mitchell finished a week of diplomacy in the region without reaching an agreement with Israel over limits on Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, diminishing chances for a breakthrough meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders next week at the U.N. General Assembly session.

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Mitchell met with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu three times this week, including two sessions on Friday; visited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas twice in the West Bank city of Ramallah; and made side trips to Egypt and Jordan.

But the intense round of diplomacy failed to broker even a handshake between Netanyahu and Abbas at the U.N. meeting next week, signaling a deepened stalemate over an issue that President Obama has set as one of his top priorities.

The U.N. meeting is likely to be a pointed one for Netanyahu. A U.N. Human Rights Council report this week accused Israel of violating international law during last winter's three-week war in the Gaza Strip, and tensions are rising over Iran's nuclear program. In Tehran on Friday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used an annual rally in support of the Palestinians to again deny the Holocaust and urge opposition to Israel.

The Obama administration had hoped to announce at next week's gathering the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. But Mitchell's months of arbitration failed to coax an agreement from Israel to impose a settlement freeze or persuade Abbas to restart talks without one. Israel has said it would suspend construction for several months, but it also excluded from those limits thousands of homes already under construction, approved building permits for an additional 455 projects and exempted disputed areas of East Jerusalem altogether.

"There are no middle-ground solutions for settlements. A settlement freeze is a settlement freeze," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, reiterating what has become a fixed demand of Abbas and the Arab states.

A freeze on Israeli building in the occupied West Bank is part of an agreement the two sides reached in 2003. Arabs regard it as a central step for Israel to show it is serious about negotiating a peace agreement. There are about 300,000 settlers in the West Bank, and Palestinians argue that the continued expansion of Israel's presence in the area makes a final deal on the borders of a future Palestinian state impossible.

The two sides are also at odds over Jerusalem, with the United States and Abbas insisting that Jewish construction stop in historically Arab neighborhoods, and Netanyahu arguing that the city must remain undivided and that Jews must be allowed to build wherever they want.

With Jews preparing to celebrate the start of Rosh Hashanah and Muslims the three-day festival that marks the end of Ramadan, Mitchell shuttled Friday between Jerusalem and Ramallah before departing the country at midafternoon.

An Israeli government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Netanyahu was willing to meet Abbas and had ordered a plane to be kept ready over the weekend in the event the situation changes. But as it stands, the Israeli leader does not plan to leave for New York until Wednesday, a day before he is to address the assembly.


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