US special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
twice on Wednesday. Senior Palestinian officials who met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas
after his meeting with the American statesman Tuesday told Ynet that the US commitment to reach a peace deal within two years was clarified during the meeting.
The Palestinians estimate the Americans are adopting de facto the plan
presented by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
The meeting between Mitchell and Netanyahu started about an hour late on Wednesday. The two discussed the possibility of holding three-way talks between Netanyahu, Abbas, and Obama on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session next month. Sources in Ramallah estimate that three-way talks will actually take place, but will not necessarily signify the start of peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
It is likely that Mitchell will return to Ramallah Wednesday afternoon for another meeting with Abbas.
According to these same Palestinian sources, the timeframe set by the Americans for setting up state institutions remains two years. During the talks, the Palestinians received the impression that the US is determined to advance peace talks regardless of Israeli attempts "to buy time" and to place the settlements at the center of the conflict.
According to him, one of the options being looked into is the establishment of a Palestinian state according to former President Bill Clinton's outline. The Palestinians claim that this plan does not solve the controversy surrounding holy sites, and leaves open the possibility for future conflicts.
The Palestinian sources added that the Obama administration's approach is problematic in that it aims for an initial formulation of a temporary state only. The Palestinian Authority still hopes that the US will be able to persuade the Israelis to accept a plan based on the 1967 borders and mutual understandings on land exchange.
The issues that remain unsolved revolve mainly around freezing Israeli settlement building in the West Bank. The US is demanding that Israel freeze settlement building for a year, while Israel has agreed to stop building for six months only.
At the end of Mitchell's meeting Tuesday with Abbas, top Palestinian negotiator, Dr. Saeb Erekat, said
the Palestinians understood that no agreement was reached between the US and Israel that will allow for renewed talks. The Palestinians reiterated their demand that settlement building be completely halted as a precondition for renewing peace talks with Israel.
Netanyahu convened a meeting of the narrow security forum Tuesday evening to discuss his meeting with Mitchell.
The seven-man forum, dubbed "the septet" includes Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Yaalon, Minister of Intelligence Services Dan Meridor, Minister Benny Begin and Shas Chairman Eli Yishai.
At this stage, it is unclear whether Mitchell's round of discussions held Wednesday morning will be his last. Senior Israeli officials within the political echelons estimated that Mitchell is determined to arrange the sought-after summit meeting between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and may even lengthen his stay in the region until he does so.