Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday he wanted to quickly get down to full-scale peace talks on Wednesday as he met U.S. envoy George Mitchell to hear the latest from the Palestinian camp.
"Shall we get on with it? Let's get on with the talks," Netanyahu said. "That's my whole message...what I've been saying for a year and a half: Let's get on with it."
Mitchell, on his fifth shuttle since so-called "proximity talks" began in May after a hiatus of nearly 18 months in the peace process, told him: "We share your objective."
In what appears to be a carefully choreographed diplomatic operation over the coming days, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is now expected to drop his objections and move from indirect talks to face-to-face negotiations.
U.S. President Barack Obama wants to see the peace process upgraded to the level it broke off at nearly two years ago when Israel carried out a January 2009 offensive against Palestinian Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
The window of opportunity is narrowing. A partial 10-month moratorium on Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank, ordered by Netanyahu last November, is due to end on Sept. 26, posing a potentially fatal threat to the dialogue.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton echoed Mitchell's assessment. "We continue to work closely with both sides to get to direct talks as soon as possible," she said, describing the Mitchell-Netanyahu session as "a good, productive meeting."
Mitchell had "serious and positive" talks with Abbas on Tuesday, a senior Palestinian official said. There was no agreement yet to move to direct talks but "we are continuing our efforts to reach a formula" for final peace treaty negotiations.
But Palestinian sources said Abbas could decide "within days" to begin face-to-face talks, provided he received political backing for the move from major powers.
Abbas was seeking a reiteration of a March 19 statement by the major "quartet" of powers involved in Middle East diplomacy - the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations - calling on Israel to halt settlement activities in the West Bank and reach a full peace agreement with the Palestinians within 24 months.
If that happens, he said this week, "I will immediately go to direct talks, because it includes everything I am asking for."
Sources involved with efforts to bring the sides together said Abbas would tell Mitchell this Sunday whether he was willing to return to direct talks, and that if his decision was positive, the Quartet would issue its statement on Monday or Tuesday, giving Abbas the international backing he seeks.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had discussed the matter with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Quartet's Middle East envoy.
"If a Quartet statement can be helpful in encouraging the parties to move forward, obviously, I think that's something that we the United States support," Crowley said.
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