- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 19, 2009

RAMALLAH, West Bank | The United States’ top Middle East envoy failed to bridge wide gaps between Israelis and Palestinians as he ended his most intensive attempt yet on Friday, raising questions over President Obama’s efforts to revive peacemaking.

The deadlock could scuttle hopes for a meeting between Mr. Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas next week in New York, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

The key disputes are over Israeli settlement expansion and whether peace talks should begin where they left off under Mr. Netanyahu’s predecessors.

Israel has balked at a U.S. demand that it freeze settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, war-won territory the Palestinians want for their state. Under a U.S.-sponsored plan from 2003, Israel is required to freeze all such construction.

Instead, Mr. Netanyahu wants to continue building about 3,000 housing units, while offering to curtail other construction for a period of several months. Nearly half a million Israelis have moved to the West Bank and East Jerusalem since Israel captured the territories in the 1967 Mideast War, and Palestinians fear the growing settlements will make a viable state impossible.

Mr. Abbas insists on a freeze, his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said after the Palestinian president met Friday with the U.S. envoy, George Mitchell. “We once again reiterated that there are no middle-ground solutions for settlements. A settlement freeze is a settlement freeze,” Mr. Erekat said.

The Palestinians also demand that negotiations resume on the same terms as previous rounds, led by Mr. Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert. This would include Israel’s willingness to discuss all so-called core issues, including a partition of Jerusalem. Mr. Netanyahu has said Jerusalem is off-limits in negotiations, and his proposed settlement slowdown does not include the city.

Over four days, Mr. Mitchell met twice with Mr. Abbas and four times with Mr. Netanyahu, including twice on Friday before Mr. Mitchell left the region.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the administration would keep pushing for a peace deal.

“I guarantee you that President Obama and I are very patient and very determined,” she said in a speech to the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “We know that this is not an easy road for anyone to travel.”

In the meantime, a meeting between Mr. Obama, Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu in New York next week appears to be a long shot.

A senior Israeli official said that for now, a Netanyahu-Obama meeting was not on the agenda. Mr. Abbas, meanwhile, is conflicted about whether to meet with Mr. Netanyahu as a courtesy to Mr. Obama, senior Palestinian officials said.

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