As Settlement Freeze Expiration Looms, U.S. Makes Final Effort to Halt Peace Talks Breakdown

Netanyahu orders chief negotiator Yitzhak Molcho to extend his stay to deal with peace talks crisis; Abbas to meet U.S. Mideast envoy Mitchell.

American, Israeli and Palestinian officials were engaged in "intensive" efforts on Saturday to find a compromise on a settlement moratorium whose impending expiration could doom nascent peace talks, officials said.

Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu, AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered senior negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, who is visiting the U.S., to extend his stay "specifically to deal with this issue", an Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Israeli media reports said Defense Minister Ehud Barak was also in the United States to help efforts to prevent the peace negotiations from collapsing just a month after they started.

Later Saturday, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley indicated that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that day, adding that the U.S. was "doing everything we can to keep the parties in direct talks."

Abbas has repeatedly said he will quit the talks if the Israelis refuse to extend a 10-month freeze on settlement building in the occupied West Bank that expires at midnight on Sunday. Israel has rejected the demand.

Speaking at the United Nations in New York on Saturday, Abbas did not specifically refer to the imminent expiry of the freeze, but made clear that Israel would have to cease its settlement building if the negotiations were to succeed.

Piling pressure on Netanyahu, President Barack Obama called publicly on him to extend the partial building moratorium in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday.

Netanyahu's pro-settler dominated governing coalition objects to extending the freeze and the prime minister has ruled out any extension, arguing that no other Israeli leader has been forced to halt building work during previous peace talks.

But he will not want to be blamed by Washington if the talks fail so soon after their launch and must also satisfy Israeli public support for further peace negotiations.

Seeking a compromise

The Israeli official said an effort to find a compromise was under way that had been "very intensive over the last few days" and involved Netanyahu, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, and Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who serves as an envoy of Middle East power brokers known as the Quartet.

An American official also confirmed there was an "intense" negotiating effort to prevent the negotiations, renewed after a 20-month deadlock, from collapsing over settlements that are deemed illegal under international law.

Officials have refused to comment on what compromise was being considered. Among the ideas being floated by Israeli officials was a partial resumption of building confined to the settlement blocs Israel seeks to keep under any peace deal.

To Palestinians, the settlements amount to an occupation of land they want for a state, and they have not said whether they could accept that formula.

Jewish settlement leaders plan to hold a ceremony on Sunday to mark the impending end of the freeze at a settlement called Revava not far from the Palestinian West Bank city of Nablus.

"Our policy now is to resume a natural pace of building," said Naftali Bennett, director-general of the settlers' YESHA council.

Settler leaders say they have preliminary permits to put up about 2,000 homes, once the moratorium expires, but would need the approval of defence officials before they could build.

In Jerusalem, where tensions have flared between Jewish settlers and Palestinians since an Israeli guard shot and killed a Palestinian man earlier this week, police threw stun grenades to stop a stone-throwing protest on Saturday near the Old City.