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Middle East
US envoy begins 'proximity' talks
Mitchell relaunches negotiations amid Middle East peace process fears.
Last Modified: 07 Mar 2010 01:30 GMT

Abbas, the Palestinian president, said the peace process has almost reached a dead end  [EPA]

George Mitchell, the US envoy to the Middle East, has begun a round of meetings in the region aimed at re-launching negotiations.

The meetings that began on Saturday came as Mahmoud Abbas, the president of Palestine, said he feared the 20-year-old peace process with Israel was close to collapse.

Officials expect discussion on formats for the four months of "proximity talks" to which Abbas agreed last week after a year of demanding Israel end settlement building before negotiations could resume.

An Israeli spokesman said that Mitchell met Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, in Tel Aviv.

He was also due to meet Benyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, on Sunday and Abbas a day later.

Though violence is low compared to the bloodshed in the early part of the last decade, tensions are rising over land and holy sites around Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Close to collapse

Abbas, who won backing on Saturday from his Fatah party's Central Committee for the return to talks, accused Netanyahu of intransigence on Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory that, he said, had brought the peace process close to collapse.

"The peace process has almost reached a dead end," he said in a speech in Ramallah, citing Netanyahu's refusal to stand by compromise offers made by his predecessor before Abbas broke off prior negotiations in late 2008 over Israel's offensive in Gaza.

Despite a temporary, partial freeze on building in the West Bank, the expansion of Jewish settlements on land occupied since 1967, as well as an Israeli heritage plan announced last month to include West Bank religious sites "threaten ... to open the door to a dark future that awaits us all," he said.

"The Israeli government continues to procrastinate to gain time and strengthen its control of the occupied territories to prevent any realistic possibility of establishing an independent, viable ... state of Palestine," Abbas said.

'Proximity' element

Sources on both sides have said they expect Mitchell to secure agreement on a format of talks between negotiators to begin possibly in Washington or elsewhere abroad fairly soon.

The sources also concur that the "proximity" element, whereby US officials shuttled between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, may not last long before talks become more direct.

The "proximity" label may have helped Abbas retreat from his condition that a settlement freeze must precede talks.

US officials say details of how the negotiations will be resumed are likely after Mitchell ends his meetings on Monday.

Source:
Agencies
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