U.S. special envoy George Mitchell said Wednesday that the peace talks between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders were being conducted more seriously and faster than the ones he brokered in Northern Ireland in the 1990s.
Mitchell particularly noted progress regarding the construction freeze in the West Bank settlements. Associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, were quick to qualify Mitchell's enthusiasm, saying Netanyahu stressed at the meeting Wednesday that the moratorium that is set to expire on September 26 would not be extended.
The meeting, held at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, was attended by Netanyahu, Mitchell, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The leaders of the negotiating teams, Isaac Molho and Saeb Erekat, joined the two-hour meeting from time to time.
Mitchell said Netanyahu and Abbas tackled the most sensitive issues.
"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," he said.
However, senior Israeli officials briefed on the negotiations said Netanyahu had stressed to Abbas that construction would resume in the settlements when the moratorium expires. The officials said there were still serious disagreements and considerable gaps between the parties on the freeze, which remains the main threat to the talks.
Despite fears that the Palestinians might walk out if building resumes, Abbas and Netanyahu agreed yesterday that Molho and Erekat would meet early next week to discuss possible solutions for the construction issue and to prepare another meeting between the two leaders.
Mitchell said the United States was encouraging the parties to come to a joint solution on the settlements, and was bringing up its own suggestions.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Mitchell stressed a number of times that the U.S. administration thought the talks were progressing much faster than expected. The envoy reminisced about the nearly two years of talks he held in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s.
The envoy said the talks were already serious on key issues, noting that although he didn't mean to draw comparisons, months went by in Northern Ireland before the essential and contested issues were discussed.
In the current case, said Mitchell, the leaders were directly discussing the toughest and most sensitive issues. He said that although this didn't mean that the leaders agreed, it did indicate that they mean business.
Senior Israeli officials briefed on the details of the talks confirmed that all core issues were under discussion. They said the talks were being held in a very good atmosphere, without clashes or tension, although the gaps between the sides were still very great.
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