(Reuters) – A U.S. Middle East envoy ended a three-day peace mission on Sunday with no sign of any breakthrough in efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but he said he would return next week.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, briefing his cabinet on his meetings with George Mitchell, said it would soon become clear whether peace talks suspended since December 2008 would get under way.
In a statement summing up his visit, Mitchell said he held “positive and productive talks” with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an effort “to improve the atmosphere for peace and for proceeding with proximity talks,” a reference to indirect, U.S.-mediated negotiations.
Netanyahu has given no ground publicly over U.S. and Palestinian calls to halt the construction of homes for Jews on occupied territory in and near Jerusalem, an issue that has opened a rift between Israel and the United States.
The Palestinians, who want Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, have demanded a settlement freeze as a condition for peace talks.
Palestinian sources said Mitchell proposed a compromise in which the Palestinians would begin indirect talks in return for an unwritten commitment by Washington to assign blame publicly to any party that took action compromising the negotiations.
The formula appeared to envisage a situation in which Israel would quietly delay implementing some housing projects in and around East Jerusalem, without declaring a freeze that could anger pro-settler parties in Netanyahu’s governing coalition.
Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in a 1967 war and regards all of Jerusalem as its capital, a claim that is not recognized internationally.
Hamas Islamists, opposed to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s peace efforts, control the Gaza Strip.
Addressing his cabinet, Netanyahu said Israel and the United States want to “begin a peace process immediately,” and that he hoped the Palestinians shared the same goal.
“We will know in the coming days whether the process will get under way. I hope that it will indeed get under way,” he said in public remarks at the cabinet session.
Mitchell said in the statement that his deputy, David Hale, would remain behind to work with the parties this week to prepare for his return to the region next week.
On Saturday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged U.S. President Barack Obama to impose a solution to the Middle East conflict that would give the Palestinians an independent state.
Abbas’s appeal to Obama came amid widespread media reports that the U.S. president was considering floating a proposal that would set the contours of a final peace deal.
Any such move would likely be opposed by Israel, which says only negotiations can secure a final settlement to the conflict.
Aides to Abbas raised the possibility that he would meet Obama in Washington next month but said no invitation had been issued.
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)