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US Envoy Mitchell Heads to Mideast on Peace Mission


U.S. President Barack Obama's point man in the Middle East is heading to the region for a new peace mission.

Israeli settlement expansion will top the agenda, as U.S. envoy George Mitchell holds separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The United States is pushing Israel to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, an issue that has soured relations between the two countries.

The U.S. and Palestinians see the settlements as an obstacle to peace. Veteran Israeli diplomat Avi Pazner says Israel is seeking a compromise.

"This is a negotiation," he said. "It's a give and take on all parties, from the Israeli side, from the American side, from the Arab side, from the Palestinian side. We hope that there is good progress."

Israel is offering a partial settlement freeze: construction on 3,000 housing units in the West Bank will continue, but no new projects will be approved. Also, Israel will not halt construction in disputed East Jerusalem, which it sees as part of the indivisible capital of the Jewish state.

The Palestinians say anything short of a complete freeze is unacceptable. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Israeli Army Radio that Israel is ignoring the internationally-backed roadmap peace plan.

"When we say Israel must freeze settlement activities, including natural growth, that's not a Palestinian condition; that is an Israeli obligation emanating from the roadmap," he said.

The Palestinians say they will not return to the negotiating table until all settlement expansion stops. Israel, on the other hand, is ready to resume peace talks without preconditions. Now it's up to George Mitchell to try to bridge the gaps.

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