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US Envoy Extends Middle East Peace Mission


U.S. President Barack Obama's point man in the Middle East is extending a Middle East peace mission.

U.S. envoy George Mitchell met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but failed to achieve a breakthrough on a halt to Jewish settlement expansion. But in a possible sign of progress, Mitchell will visit several Arab countries and then make an unscheduled stop in Israel on Friday for more talks.

The United States has demanded a complete freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank and disputed East Jerusalem, and Israel's refusal has strained ties between the two countries.

A former Israeli ambassador to Washington and member of the ruling Likud party, Zalman Shoval, says the United States and Israel are patching up their differences.

"I think the two sides are getting much nearer to each other than it used to be several weeks or several months ago," he said. "I think both sides understand that they have to come to some sort of compromise."

Israel's compromise offer is a partial settlement freeze. Construction of 3,000 homes in the West Bank will continue, but no new projects will be approved. There would be no freeze in East Jerusalem, which Israel claims as part of its undivided capital and which the Palestinians seek as the capital of their future state.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says the Israeli offer is unacceptable.

"Israel, the Israeli government, continues its defiance of the international community, the American administration's calls to stop settlement activities including natural growth," he said. "This undermines the peace process."

Mitchell has been trying to work out a deal that would lead to a three-way meeting next week with U.S. President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. But the American envoy is having a hard time bridging the gaps.

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