U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell said late Wednesday he believes progress is being made on the issue of extending an Israeli freeze on settlement building in the West Bank. Mitchell spoke in Jerusalem after a second day of direct Israel-Palestinian peace talks brokered by the United States.
Mitchell is adhering closely to an agreement among the parties to avoid discussion on the substance of the talks. But he does say he believes there has been progress on the issue of the settlement moratorium, which has threatened to bring the talks to an early end.
Palestinians have threatened a walkout if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not extend the ten-month moratorium on most West Bank settlement building that ends at the end of the month.
The United States has pushed for an extension, coupled with Palestinian gestures that would make it to easier for Mr. Netanyahu to get such a decision through his right-leaning coalition government.
Though giving no details, Mitchell said after a two-hour trilateral meeting at Mr. Netanyahu's official residence that he thinks there is progress on the issue.
He heaped praise on both Mr. Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for their approach to the talks, saying they are serious, and they mean business.
Mitchell was a key negotiator in the 1990's Good Friday accord that ended the Northern Ireland conflict. He said those talks dragged on many months before there was a single serious discussion of major issues.
But he said the new Middle East talks, which began in Washington early this month and continued Tuesday in Egypt, have moved quickly to the core issues.
"In this case, within a matter of literally days since this process began, the leaders have yesterday at Sharm el-Sheikh and this evening here, engaged directly, vigorously, seriously in what are among the most difficult and sensitive issues that they will confront," said George Mitchell. "And so we think that this is a strong indicator of sincerity and seriousness of purpose."
Mitchell stressed that serious talk on the core issues, which include Jerusalem, refugees and the borders of a Palestinian state, is not the same as a resolution of them. But he said it has been extremely impressive to see both leaders engaging in this way.
The U.S. envoy said the two leaders tasked working-level officials with continuing the dialogue and planning for the next senior level meeting, which reportedly could take place in New York where leaders convene for the U.N. General Assembly next week.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who led the U.S. team at this week's trilateral talks, returns to Washington late Thursday after meeting Mr. Abbas in Ramallah and Jordan's King Abdullah in Amman.
Mitchell goes to Damascus Thursday to meet President Bashar al-Assad and other key Syrian officials in a bid to renew Syrian-Israel peace contacts, which he said could be complementary and beneficial to the talks between the parties.
He goes on to Beirut Thursday night for similar discussion with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Saad Hariri.