US envoy George Mitchell on Thursday stepped up the pace of efforts to avert the collapse of Middle East peace talks launched four weeks ago, saying, "We are continuing our efforts to find common ground between the parties to enable the direct negotiations to continue."
Speaking after talks in Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who says he will pull out of the talks unless Israel extends a freeze on new building in Jewish West Bank settlements, Mitchell said, "We think it's important for the Palestinian people, for the people of Israel, and we think it's in the United States' interest and indeed the interests of people around the world that this conflict of long-standing be brought to an end."
According to chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians told Mitchell they would not be able to return to the negotiation table amid "significant" construction in the West Bank.
Before Thursday's meeting, which ended inconclusively, Abbas adviser Nabil Shaath said no progress has been made toward a compromise.
"Apparently the Israelis are determined to swallow and steal the land and consider that much more important than peace," Shaath told The Associated Press. "Unless the settlement activities stop completely, there is no use in continuing these negotiations."
Mitchell has been shuttling between Israelis and Palestinians since Tuesday to try to forge a compromise.
Later in the day Abbas is expected to convene the PLO Executive Committee to update its members on the recent developments. The heads of all the Palestinian organizations were invited to take part in the meeting.
It is estimated that the Executive Committee will recommend that the direct talks be suspended as long as settlement construction continues, but Palestinian sources told Ynet that Arab countries and the international community are working to find a formula that would allow negotiations to continue.
The Arab League, which is expected to convene October 4, will apparently not recommend that the Palestinians back out of the negotiations.
The Palestinians will likely agree to continue the talks if Israeli construction in the West Bank is limited to the large settlement blocs and if Israel agrees to base the negotiations on the 1967 borders.
Sources familiar with the negotiations said that despite the expiration of the 10-month settlement construction moratorium, construction in the West Bank's Jewish communities has yet to resume.
Reuters contributed to the report
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