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US Envoy Steps Up Efforts to Save Mideast Talks

Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell, waves to the media before a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, 30 Sept 2010

United States envoy George Mitchell is continuing efforts to salvage stalled Middle East peace talks as rumors of a U.S. compromise proposal on the contentious issue of West Bank settlements are being leaked to the media.

Mitchell, who has been holding talks in the region since Tuesday, will meet separately with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again on Friday. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is holding concurrent meetings with Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu Thursday and Friday to lend EU support for the continuation of negotiations.

An online report from the U.S.-based Washington Institute for Near East Policy published Wednesday said President Barack Obama sent a letter to the Israeli prime minister offering F-35 aircraft and other equipment in exchange for a one-time, 60-day extension of Israel's partial settlement construction moratorium in the occupied West Bank which expired Sunday.

The report said the U.S. also promised to veto any U.N. Security Council initiative related to Arab-Israeli peace during a one-year negotiating period and support the extended presence of Israeli troops in the West Bank's Jordan Valley even after the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The White House denied Thursday that any letter had been sent.

Mitchell and Ashton are trying to persuade the Palestinians to remain in direct talks with Israel despite the end of the settlement freeze. Palestinians say settlement expansion is the key issue that will determine whether they will continue talks.

After his meeting with Mr. Abbas Thursday, Mitchell said negotiators were continuing efforts to find "common ground" between the two sides.

The Palestinian president has said he will decide whether to quit the talks after consulting senior Arab officials next week. Officials said the Palestinian Liberation Organization's executive committee, which Mr. Abbas chairs, will convene in Ramallah on Saturday to discuss the peace talks.

A crucial Arab League meeting initially scheduled for Monday has been moved to Wednesday to give Mitchell more time for negotiation.