U.S. Mediators Work To Salvage Mideast Talks

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The Obama administration is still trying to salvage the Middle East peace talks despite the end of Israel's partial moratorium on settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

President Obama is dispatching his Middle East envoy on a rescue mission. In danger are the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks now that an Israeli settlement freeze has ended. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to walk out of talks if Jewish housing projects resume construction in the West Bank. Now, he says he will wait until next week to decide what to do, and that gives the U.S. a short amount of time to try to bridge the gap, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: President Abbas says he will wait until he meets Arab League officials October 4th to decide whether to stay or walk out of talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Speaking to reporters in Paris today, Abbas repeated his call on Israel to stop building in the occupied West Bank.

President MAHMOUD ABBAS (Palestinian Authority): (Through Translator) Netanyahu implemented a 10-month moratorium when there were no negotiations. So now, he should accept a three- or a four-month extension to facilitate the peace talks, so we can discuss the core issues in depth.

KELEMEN: At that same news conference, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he deplored the Israeli decision to let the partial-settlement moratorium lapse.

President NICOLAS SARKOZY (France): (Foreign language spoken)

KELEMEN: The colonization must stop, Sarkozy said. The State Department reaction was more muted. Spokesman P.J. Crowley says the U.S. was disappointed that the Israelis didn't extend the housing slowdown, but Crowley says the important thing is to keep focused on the longer-term objective - reaching a two-state solution in a year.

Assistant Secretary P.J. CROWLEY (U.S. Department of State): The process is important. It's vital, as the parties themselves know. Absent these direct negotiations, Israel does not get the security that it needs and deserves, and the Palestinians do not get the state that they want and deserve.

KELEMEN: Crowley says Middle East envoy George Mitchell is flying back to the region to, quote, "sort through with the parties to see where they go from here." There are no direct talks scheduled between Abbas and Netanyahu, but Crowley made clear that the U.S. is hoping to get through, as he put it, this period of turbulence, and he's counting on the Arab League to help give Abbas some diplomatic cover.

Asst. Sec. CROWLEY: We had some discussions last week with key Arab leaders and countries on the - on supporting the process. I am sure that we will have further discussions between now and the Arab League meeting.

KELEMEN: On Sunday, Jewish settlers marked the end of the moratorium by breaking ground on a new kindergarten, but Israeli officials say they don't expect any major new construction, at least not now. That's in part because Palestinian construction workers can't enter Jewish areas during the weeklong Jewish holiday, Sukkot.

Though he has refused to extend the moratorium - which Israelis say would be politically risky for him - Prime Minister Netanyahu has urged Jewish settlers to show restraint, and he asked Abbas to continue with direct talks. The problem with that, says Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group, is that Abbas would lose even more credibility in the eyes of Palestinians.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (International Crisis Group): The irony is that we have two sides who want to get to negotiations, who don't want the settlement issue to stand in the way, but because of their domestic politics, are incapable of bridging the gaps and are hoping and relying on the U.S. to do it for them.

KELEMEN: U.S. negotiators have been working on this issue for two weeks already and have just been given one more week of breathing space to try to salvage the peace process.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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