Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his official residence in Jerusalem on Wednesday, in what special U.S. envoy George Mitchell described as a sign that both leaders believe a peace deal can be achieved.
The meeting in Jerusalem was the third consecutive session between the leaders over the last two days, a continuation of the direct negotiations that began last month.
Following the meeting, Mitchell said that Abbas and Netanyahu had discussed difficult issues "up front" and seemed to be making progress on the contentious issue of settlement construction in the West Bank.
"They are tackling up front ... the issues that are at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Mitchell told reporters. "I will say that the two leaders are not leaving the tough issues to the end of their discussions ... We take this as a strong indicator of their belief that peace is possible."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took center stage prior to the meeting between the two leaders, which followed a round of negotiations in Egypt a day earlier.
During their meeting, Netanyahu reiterated to the two that Israel's temporary freeze in West Bank construction would indeed expire as planned at the end of the month.
A day earlier, Israeli sources said that the Israeli leader had implored the Palestinian president not to let the end of the freeze foil the long-awaited resumption of peace negotiations.
When asked prior to their meeting in Jerusalem if they had made progress during their two sessions of meetings at the Sinai resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, Netanyahu told reporters: "We're working on it ... It's a lot of work. And I am glad to have the opportunity to welcome President Abbas and Secretary Clinton here pursuing peace, and I think we should get on with [it]."
It was Abbas's first visit to the official residence in Jerusalem of Israel's prime minister since the right-wing Netanyahu took office 18 months ago. He had held talks there before with Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
"Today I returned to this house after a long period of absence in order to continue the talks and the negotiations, in hope of arriving at an eternal peace in all the region, and especially peace between the Israeli people and the Palestinian people," he wrote in the visitors' book.
Washington has set a one-year target for reaching a framework peace agreement aimed at ending a decades-long conflict and establishing a Palestinian state.
But a 10-month Israeli moratorium on new housing construction in West Bank settlements, which Netanyahu imposed under U.S. pressure, expires on Sept. 26 and Palestinians have said they would quit the negotiations if building resumes.
Clinton to Peres: Israel and Palestinians getting serious about peace
The secretary of state earlier Wednesday met with President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak for separate talks. Clinton told Peres during their meeting that it seemed Israeli and Palestinian leaders were "getting down to business" and tackling the main issues of the Middle East conflict.
"They have begun to grapple with the core issues that can only be resolved through face to face negotiations," she said. "I have spent many hours in conversation with them and I believe they are sincere and understand the consequences of their actions."
Peres responded by telling Clinton that he believes the direct peace talks have gotten off on the right foot. "The faster we move, the better it will be for all parties," Peres said. "A few months ago we did not think we could move to direct talks and it happened."
The United States has stepped up pressure on Netanyahu and Abbas to resolve the crisis over the looming end of the settlement freeze. During talks between the two leaders with Clinton in Sharm on Tuesday, a number of ideas were raised in an effort to achieve a breakthrough.
A senior Israeli official said that Netanyahu had made it clear to Abbas that the construction freeze in West Bank settlements would come to an end as scheduled on September 26 and would not be extended.
However, the prime minister said that construction will be limited and will not exceed that which was carried out under the tenure of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, with whom Abbas held direct talks.
"The end of the settlement freeze must not be allowed to foil the talks," Netanyahu told Abbas. "We have taken on an ambitious mission of reaching agreement within a year and we must focus on that."
Among the ideas for achieving a breakthrough on the issue of the settlement freeze was to hold intensive talks on the question of borders for a future Palestinian state and setting a three month deadline for agreement. In return the Palestinians would agree to continue the talks despite a return to building in the West Bank.
Mitchell, who has been present for the negotiations but refused to elaborate on the content of the talks, said that there was also discussion of the core issues of a future permanent settlement, describing the atmosphere as "serious" and the talks as "detailed."
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