The Obama administration expects Israel to refrain from making any move that could potentially damage peace talks with the Palestinians once they begin, United States Middle East envoy George Mitchell has told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Mitchell conveyed the same message to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
In recent days, Abbas has made clear that if Israel renews building in West Bank settlements, after a 10-month freeze on settlement construction on September 27, the Palestinian Authority will abandon the direct peace talks.
A senior American official well versed in the latest contacts between the U.S. and Israeli administrations refused to say whether Mitchell's message explicitly mentioned the future of settlement building. The official said that the U.S. position on the settlements is already known and has not changed. He clarified by saying that the U.S. views Israeli settlement building as illegitimate.
The official added that the U.S. had made clear to both sides that once the negotiations begin, both sides are expected to make serious efforts to move the talks forward and to avoid taking steps that could potentially harm them. The U.S. will make every effort to ensure that the talks don't end once they have begun, the official said.
Direct peace negotiations are expected to begin on September 2 in Washington, but several things, including a schedule and daily agenda for the visit, have yet to be determined. Another important detail yet to be addressed is the format the negotiations will take once the Washington summit is over.
The agenda and schedule for the visit will be finalized this week, the senior American official said. He confirmed that there will be direct talks between to the two parties and that all issues will be on the negotiating table. But he made clear that the two sides must decide how to direct the negotiations and choose the order of the topics to be discussed. The official expects that the Palestinians will want to discuss settlement building while Israel will want to address other issues.
The official believes that the U.S. government, and Mitchell in particular, plan on being extremely active participants in the talks. U.S. President Barack Obama has invested a lot of time on this issue, the official said while stressing how important the talks were for Obama. He added that the president has put his credibility on the line by inviting everyone to the White House and is more invested in this issue than the previous U.S. government was.