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US Envoy Back in Israel to Push Peace Efforts

U.S. Special Envoy for the Middle East George Mitchell has begun meetings with officials in Israel to revive stalled peace efforts. Among the obstacles that Mitchell is facing is Israel's continuing expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

U.S. envoy George Mitchell hopes to strike a deal for a meeting next week among Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and U.S. President Barack Obama. The meeting would take place on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

The U.S. official faced large hurdles this week, with all sides far apart on the key issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The Palestinians say there must be some progress on the settlement issue before any meeting takes place.

Speaking on Palestinian radio, Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said there will be no compromises from their side on their demand for Israel to freeze settlement activity.

He said there is no middle solution on the settlement issue. He said Israel must stop all settlement activity, including construction to accommodate natural growth. He said Israel would then have to implement those agreements. Mr. Erekat said that would be the way to enter negotiations.

Washington also wants a settlement freeze.

Speaking after a weekly Cabinet meeting, Mr. Netanyahu said large gaps remained in talks with Mr. Mitchell.

Mr. Netanyahu said there are issues where there has been progress, and areas where there has been no progress. The Israeli leader said he hopes that the gaps will be narrowed in order to jumpstart the peace process, and he said Israel is not the one putting obstacles in the way. He said from that from his perspective, talks with the Palestinians could begin tomorrow.

The United States last week sharply criticized Israel's decision to issue 455 construction permits inside Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Israel has not annexed the West Bank since capturing the territory following its victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Palestinians argue that settling occupied territory is illegal under international law.

Mr. Netanyahu on Sunday headed to Cairo to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The two were expected to discuss settlement construction and Egypt's brokering of a possible Palestinian prisoner exchange that could bring the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by militants from Gaza in 2006.

Mitchell's schedule included meetings with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and President Shimon Peres on Sunday. Mr. Peres has just been released from a hospital in Tel Aviv after collapsing at an event Saturday.

The U.S. envoy is due to meet Monday with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He is scheduled to be in the West Bank on Tuesday for a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.