US-Israeli talks make 'progress'

13:20, 28 July 2009
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US Middle East...

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu said they had "productive" talks aimed at restarting the regional peace process, according to BBC.

There was no mention of Israel agreeing to halt settlement construction, a key demand the US has made of its ally.

Mr Netanyahu has previously rejected such a freeze, saying "natural growth" of settlements must be allowed.

Mr Mitchell is one of several senior US officials in the region pushing for a comprehensive Middle East peace deal.

The Palestinians have said all Israeli settlement building on occupied territory must cease before talks can resume.

Relations soured

After a nearly three-hour meeting that was expected to focus on the settlements issue, the men spoke briefly to reporters. There was no mention of settlements.

"Good progress" was made, said Mr Mitchell, an experienced diplomat who negotiated the Northern Ireland peace agreement.

"We look forward to continuing our discussions to reach a point that we can all move forward to reach a comprehensive peace," he said.

Mr Netanyahu said they were making progress "toward achieving the understanding that will enable us to continue and complete the peace process established between us and Palestinian neighbours and the countries in the entire region".

Relations between the two allies have soured in recent weeks over US demands that the settlement construction halt.

The US is making a major diplomatic push seeking a comprehensive Middle East peace deal.

President Barack Obama`s National Security Adviser James Jones and veteran diplomat Dennis Ross are also to arrive in the region to join the effort.

`Roadmap obligations`

In earlier meetings in the region, Mr Mitchell urged all countries to make the difficult choices needed for peace.

"That includes between Israel and Palestinians, between Syrians and Israelis, between Israel and Lebanon and the normalisation of relations between Israel and al of the countries in the region," Mr Mitchell said late on Monday after a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Earlier, he told Israeli President Shimon Peres that Israel could improve the climate by "dealing with difficult issues like settlements and outposts".

All settlements are illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this. Israel has settled more than 450,000 Jews in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Although the Israelis are reluctant to agree to demands that they stop settlement building, there may be a compromise brewing whereby the Israelis agree to finish the building of 2,000 new apartments a short distance inside the West Bank, but freeze all other construction, says the BBC`s Tim Franks in Jerusalem.

The Palestinians have previously said nothing short of a complete and immediate end to settlement building will do.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat accused Israel of failing "to fulfill any of its roadmap obligations, including a settlement freeze, the reopening of Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem, removal of outposts, the release of Palestinian prisoners", reports AFP news agency.

He was speaking after the meeting between Mr Mitchell and Mr Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Mr Mitchell said the Palestinians should "take action against incitement and... refrain from any words or deeds that may make it more difficult to move quickly toward successful negotiations".

Earlier in the day Mr Mitchell met President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.

The Egyptians are currently brokering reconciliation talks between the deeply divided Palestinian factions of Fatah and Hamas.

Despite several rounds of talks, the two Palestinian factions are still at odds on the most sensitive issues, such as the shape of a future unity government, the remit of the joint security force and the system that would be implemented for any upcoming elections.

Iran options

Relations with Iran have also been on the agenda, with Israel saying Tehran`s nuclear programme remains its number-one concern.

Before leaving Israel to travel to Jordan and then Iraq, Defence Secretary Gates said US overtures to Iran were "not open-ended".

He was referring to a statement Mr Obama made in January, shortly after taking office, where he said if Iran and countries like it were "willing to unclench their fists, they will find an extended hand from us".

Israeli officials have said military action remained an option on Iran.

Iran denies claims it wants to build nuclear weapons, saying it is enriching uranium for a civilian energy programme.

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