European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she would depart for the Middle East on Wednesday as diplomatic pressure intensified to save faltering Israel-Palestinian peace talks.
"I'm going to the Middle East tonight and I'll meet (US Middle East peace envoy) George Mitchell when I land tomorrow," Ashton told Reuters in an interview in Washington, adding that she also planned to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Ashton's trip, which follows talks she is due to have in Washington with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, comes as Mitchell seeks to find a formula to salvage peace talks that plunged into crisis after a 10-month moratorium on new housing construction in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank expired on Monday.
Mitchell said the United States is "determined more than ever" to achieve Middle East peace, but emerged from a meeting with Netanyahu on Wednesday with no public sign of progress toward the goal of averting a Palestinian walkout over the settlements.
'Very good rapport'
The European Union is, along with the United States, the United Nations and Russia, one of the "Quartet" of Middle East peace mediators and Ashton said she would join with Mitchell in seeking to find a way to keep the talks alive.
"The challenge is to find a way that we can keep President Abbas in the talks," Ashton said, adding that she believed Abbas and Netanyahu were having serious talks about the way forward.
"The impression I get is that ... they're having a conversation, and the rapport between them, doing that, appears to be very good," Ashton said.
"So in terms of Middle East peace possibilities, this is probably as good as it's been for a very long time."
Abbas has threatened to quit the direct talks that were launched on Sept. 2 unless the settlement freeze is extended. He has put off a decision until an Arab League forum discusses the issue on Oct. 4.
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