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Updated: July 16, 2010 20:48 IST

Obama’s envoy pushes for direct peace talks in Middle East

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U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell. File photo: AP.
U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell. File photo: AP.

Washington’s special envoy to the Middle East, in the region to push for direct Israeli—Palestinian peace talks, opened a new round of indirect negotiations on Friday by meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel Radio reported.

George Mitchell was scheduled to meet the Palestinian leadership in the nearby West Bank city of Ramallah on Saturday, after Friday’s parleys with Mr. Netanyahu in Jerusalem, and then hold a second session with the Israeli premier on Sunday.

He hopes to convince Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to enter into direct talks before before a partial freeze on Israeli construction in the occupied West Bank expires this autumn.

Mr. Abbas and his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, however, have continued to publicly list conditions for moving on from indirect to direct negotiations: That Israel freeze all construction in both the occupied West Bank and annexed East Jerusalem; that the negotiations start from where they left off under the previous, centrist Israeli government of former premier Ehud Olmert; and that meaningful progress is made in the indirect talks first on key negotiating issues, notably those of borders and security.

Mr. Netanyahu indicated in Washington last week that he did not intend to extend the 10—month partial moratorium on Israeli construction in West Bank settlements, due to expire on September 26.

Israel and the U.S. hope to move on to direct negotiations before that date, so that both leaders would have more political manoeuvrability to take difficult steps.

A sceptical and reluctant Mr. Abbas entered into indirect talks with the hardline Netanyahu government only in the spring, more than a year after the Israeli premier took office.

Meanwhile, an opinion poll published by the Jerusalem Post indicated on Friday the vast majority of Jewish Israelis believe that U.S. President Barack Obama does not favour their country, despite his friendly reception for Mr. Netanyahu at the White House last week.

Asked whether they saw Mr. Obama’s administration as more pro—Israel, more pro—Palestinian or neutral, just 10 per cent of Israeli Jews said more pro—Israel as against 46 per cent who said more pro— Palestinian.

Thirty—four per cent said neutral and 10 per cent did not express an opinion, according to the poll commissioned by the Jerusalem Post.

The poll of 515 Jewish Israelis, representing a statistical sample of the adult Jewish population, was taken on Monday through Wednesday and had a margin of error of 4.4 per cent.

Last week’s warm parley was a sharp contrast to a cold earlier White House meeting in the spring, overshadowed by an Israeli plan to expand a Jewish neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, built on occupied West Bank land.

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