- The Washington Times - Monday, September 14, 2009

JERUSALEM | U.S. envoy George J. Mitchell began his latest Middle East tour Sunday, and the Israeli prime minister was to head to Egypt as efforts to kick-start the peace process intensified ahead of the opening of the U.N. General Assembly.

The thorny issue of Israeli settlement construction on occupied Palestinian land was likely to top the agenda of talks both in Jerusalem and in Cairo, with Washington pushing for, and Israel so far resisting, a total freeze.

For months, Washington has been trying to secure Israeli agreement to the settlement freeze while pressing Arab governments for reciprocal concessions to clear the way for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks suspended in late December.

While Israel has agreed to a temporary halt, it has also authorized the construction of hundreds of new homes in advance of the moratorium in a move criticized by the European Union and the United States as well as the Palestinians.

The Palestinians have said they will not resume talks - and Arab leaders have said they will not take steps to normalize relations with Israel - without a complete halt to settlement construction.

The outcome of Mr. Mitchell’s talks is likely to determine whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meet for the first time later this month, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly along with President Obama.

Ahead of Mr. Mitchell’s latest trip, the Palestinians reiterated that they will not back down from their demand for a complete settlement freeze, and Mr. Netanyahu said Israelis were ready for talks, but were not “suckers.”

“President Abbas … will also renew his demand that the United States intervene to completely halt settlement activity in the Palestinian territories,” Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

Mr. Netanyahu, meanwhile, told members of his right-wing Likud Party last week: “There is one thing we are not willing to do: We are not willing to delude ourselves; or in common terms, we are not suckers.”

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