US And Europe Toil To Save Israel-Palestinian Peace Talks

Palestinian Territories (AFP) – US envoy George Mitchell held crucial talks with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas on Thursday and pledged to maintain intensive efforts to salvage peace talks with Israel. Keeping up the pressure, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was also in the region and met Abbas ahead of meetings on Friday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Speaking to reporters after two hours of talks with Abbas at his West Bank headquarters, Mitchell did not disclose details of their conversation, but said he would meet the Palestinian president again on Friday. "We are determined to continue our efforts to find common ground between the parties to enable the direct negotiations to continue," Mitchell said. "We will continue our efforts intensively in the coming days." Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina reiterated after the Mitchell meeting: "We will not negotiate without a complete freeze on settlements activity." Mitchell hopes to persuade Abbas to stick with the negotiations despite Israel's refusal, so far, to extend restrictions on Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank. Ashton, who also met Abbas in Ramallah, is set to meet Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad on Friday before talks with Netanyahu and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, an EU official said. Ashton made no statement after meeting Abbas, whose spokesman said she "supported the Palestinian position on the settlements freeze" during their meeting. In a statement before her visit, she said: "As I have said, the EU regrets the Israeli decision not to extend the moratorium on settlements." The US and EU diplomats are seeking to stave off a breakdown of negotiations, which only restarted this month. The issue is Israel's refusal to extend a 10-month moratorium on settlement building, as demanded by the Palestinians and urged by both the European Union and the United States. The moratorium expired on Sunday, but the Palestinians have said they will reserve a f