American Middle East envoy George Mitchell said Tuesday he thinks the U.S.-brokered direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks "are moving in the right direction overall." Mitchell spoke after a three-way U.S.-Palestinian-Israeli meeting in the Egyptian Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh that included a surprise second session.
The initial three-way meeting of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Neyanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton extended nearly two hours - longer than planned.
Although he kept to a stated commitment to avoid discussing the substance of the talks, U.S. envoy Mitchell, who spoke for the three parties, hinted at progress.
What was discussed
He said the talks, the second round of a direct dialogue begun earlier this month in Washington, included a serious discussion of several of the core issues of the peace process, and that he believes the talks "are moving in the right direction overall."
It was later revealed that the three principals held an unscheduled second meeting Tuesday afternoon at a Sharm el-Sheikh hotel. The dialogue is to continue with another three-way meeting Wednesday in Jerusalem, and Mitchell said the parties agreed to hold working-level talks to, among other things, prepare for the next leadership session.
The talks here convened amid Palestinian threats to walk out of the process if Prime Minister Netanyahu failed to extend the moratorium on most West Bank settlement activity he declared earlier this year and which expires September 26.
Mitchell, under questioning, reaffirmed U.S. support for extending the freeze but said there are also steps the Palestinians should take to advance the dialogue.
"We think it makes sense to extend the moratorium, especially given that the talks are moving in a constructive direction," Mitchell said. "We know that this is a politically sensitive issue in Israel and we have also called on President Abbas to take steps that help encourage and facilitate this process. We believe that both sides have a responsibility to help insure that these talks continue in a constructive manner."
The U.S. envoy paid tribute to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who held bilateral meetings here with all three key participants, for hosting the first round of direct talks in the region in nearly two years.
The venue will shift to Jerusalem Wednesday to, as a senior U.S. official said, "put the focus on the Israeli-Palestinian channel and to regularize the dialogue."
Mitchell said the goal continues to be a resolution of the decades-long conflict within a year.
"President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu continue to agree that these negotiations, whose goal is to resolve all core issues, can be completed within one year," Mitchell said. "As I said recently in Washington, the parties have agreed to begin first on working to achieve a framework agreement for permanent status. That work is now well under way."
The core issues include the borders of a prospective Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, the right of refugees and future of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Palestinian officials have been pushing for an early agreement on borders, which U.S. officials say would go a long way toward de-fusing the settlement issue.
Secretary Clinton, after Wednesday's Jerusalem meetings, will meet Mr. Abbas at his Ramallah office Thursday before ending her Middle East trip with a stop in Amman to meet Jordan's King Abdullah.
A senior U.S. official said Mitchell would remain in the region and visit Syria shortly, reflecting Obama administration interest in an eventual broader regional peace accord involving Syria and Lebanon.
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