US envoy in region on new push for peace

Diplomats begin to arrive in region to rescue talks between Palestinian and Israeli leaders.

JERUSALEM // Israel's prime minister reaffirmed his government's commitment to achieving peace in the Middle East yesterday as diplomats began arriving in the region to rescue recently resumed negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli leaders.

Benjamin Netanyahu told the US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, at a meeting in Jerusalem that Israel was "committed to achieving peace - a peace that will protect Israel's security and vital interests". "There are many doubts and obstacles on the road to peace," Mr Netanyahu said. "Everyone understands this, but the only way that it is certain we won't achieve peace is if we don't try to achieve peace."

The Israeli leader's remarks were apparently aimed to allay questions about his commitment to the month-old negotiations following a controversial speech delivered to the United Nations by his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Mr Lieberman appeared to break ranks with the government during his address to the world body on Tuesday. He raised the idea of a long-term interim agreement to resolve the conflict that "could take a few decades" - contrary to the one-year time limit of the current talks - and repeated his previous proposal to swap parts of Israel with large Arab populations in return for dismantling settlements.

The speech apparently angered Mr Netanyahu, and a statement from his office later distanced the prime minster from the remarks. "Lieberman's address was not coordinated with the prime minister," it said. "Issues surrounding a peace agreement will be discussed and decided only at the negotiating table, and nowhere else." Mr Mitchell, arriving in Jerusalem on Tuesday on the orders of the US president, Barack Obama, is trying to break a stalemate that has threatened to derail the month-old Israeli-Palestinian talks following the expiration on September 26 of a partial freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank.

He was scheduled to meet Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, today. Mr Abbas, who has repeatedly threatened to withdraw from the talks if settlement construction resumes, said this week he would wait to decide whether to walk away from the negotiations until an Arab League meeting in Cairo on Monday. The Palestinian leader has yet to accept an invitation by France to hold talks in Paris next month with Mr Netanyahu, who confirmed on Tuesday that he would attend.

At a joint news conference in Berlin yesterday, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the ruler of Qatar, called on the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to continue with the talks. Sheikh Hamad appealed to Israel to show "the wisdom to support a Palestinian state", while Mrs Merkel also called for a "willingness to compromise" from both sides. In another sign of rising diplomatic concern about the talks, the European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, announced yesterday that she would join diplomats in the region to help broker a compromise.

"I'm going to the Middle East tonight and I'll meet George Mitchell when I land tomorrow," said Mrs Ashton, who added that she would also meet both Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu. Mr Mitchell is reported to be attempting to push a compromise on the issue of settlement construction in return for undisclosed guarantees offered to the Israelis. The Bloomberg news agency, citing anonymous US officials, reported on its website yesterday that the Obama administration was asking Israel to extend the construction freeze by 60 days.

The US envoy said after his meeting with Mr Netanyahu that he was "determined more than ever" to achieve peace, but gave no indication that progress had been made. Mark Regev, Mr Netanyahu's spokesman, declined to comment on the issue. While confirming the existence of a US proposal made to Israel on extending the freeze, Husam Zomlot, a member of the international affairs commission for Fatah, which is Mr Abbas's faction, declined to give specifics.

"But our position," Mr Zomlot said, "is that we won't negotiate if settlements are expanding. We believe the extension of the settlement freeze is an Israeli issue and should not be rewarded." He also expressed concern about the seriousness of Israeli leaders to strike an agreement with the Palestinians in light of Mr Lieberman's remarks at the UN. "There are strong currents in the Israeli government who don't believe we can strike a deal within a year, and I also want to stress that Mr Lieberman's ideas are premised not on ending Israeli occupation but on ethnic cleansing," he added.