EU's Ashton to Make Surprise Israel Visit Amid Recent Peace Talks Crisis

Visit announced as U.S. officials engage in intense efforts to find a solution to the stall brought about by the end of the settlement construction freeze.

The European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will make an unannounced visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority on Thursday, in what seems like another last ditch attempt to put the recently stalled direct Mideast peace talks back on track.

Catherine Ashton

The EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy will be arriving in Israel directly following a consultation with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington scheduled for later Wednesday, and will be meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this Friday.

In a statement, Clinton said she would talk to both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in order to urge them both "to find a satisfactory way for negotiations to continue and gather momentum."

The announcement of the unscheduled visit came as U.S. officials were engaged in intense efforts to find a solution to the crisis in the peace talks caused by the expiration earlier this week of Israel's ten-month freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank.

Speaking during a meeting with U.S. Special Mideast envoy George Mitchell on Wednesday in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said that he and his government are committed to reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

"There are many doubts and obstacles on the road to peace," Netanyahu said. "Everyone understands this, but the only way that it is certain we won't achieve peace is if we don't try to achieve peace. I am committed to peace and my government is committed to peace."

Mitchell was expected to discuss with Netanyahu an American proposal in which the U.S. would make certain guarantees to Israel on core issues in final status negotiations in exchange for Israel extending the settlement freeze for several months.

At this point, Netanyahu has reservations about the U.S. proposal.

"We are committed to achieving peace – a peace that will protect Israel's security and vital interests," Netanyahu told Mitchell. "We are committed to going down this route. I hope that the good talks that we've started with Abbas will continue to reach an agreement within a year."

Netanyahu emphasized that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's speech at the United Nations on Tuesday in which Lieberman proposed a population exchange with the Palestinians did not represent Israeli policy.

"I lead Israeli policy and Israel's policy is to try to advance down the path to peace and security," Netanyahu said.

Mitchell said that U.S. President Barack Obama and. Secretary of State Clinton asked him to convey a message to Israelis, Palestinians and their leaders that the U.S. remains committed to achieving regional Middle East peace, between all peoples of the area.

Mitchell said that he knows that the road to peace will have many potholes but that the U.S. is more determined than ever to achieving the common goal of peace and security in the Middle East.

Clinton spoke with Netanyahu twice on Tuesday about the American proposal. Under the proposal, the U.S. would give Israel guarantees on the issues of security arrangements, refugees and recognition of Israel a Jewish state. In exchange, Israel would extend the settlement freeze for several months.

According to one Israeli source familiar with the contents of the conversation, Netanyahu was not enthusiastic about the proposal and did not respond positively.

A European diplomat said that Netanyahu told the Americans that he could not agree to extending the settlement freeze in the main settlement blocs and 2,000 residential units that have already received approval.

A freeze that applied only to settlement construction outside the main blocs, however, would be unacceptable to Abbas, who has demanded the extension of the full settlement freeze as a condition to continue peace talks.