The United States' top Mideast envoy failed to bridge wide gaps between Israelis and Palestinians as he ended his most intensive attempt yet on Friday, raising questions over President Barack Obama's efforts to revive peacemaking.
The deadlock could scuttle hopes for a meeting of Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas next week in New York, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
The key disputes are over Israeli settlement expansion and whether peace talks should begin where they left off under Netanyahu's predecessors.
Israel has balked at a U.S. demand that it freeze settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, war-won territory the Palestinians want for their state. Under a U.S.-sponsored plan from 2003, Israel is required to freeze all such construction.
Instead, Netanyahu wants to continue building about 3,000 housing units, while offering to curtail other construction for a period of several months. Nearly a half-million Israelis have moved to the West Bank and east Jerusalem since Israel captured the territories in the 1967 Mideast War, and Palestinians fear the growing settlements will make a viable state impossible.
'No middle ground solutions'
Abbas insists on a freeze, his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said after the Palestinian president met Friday with the U.S. envoy, George Mitchell. "We once again reiterated that there are no middle ground solutions for settlements. A settlement freeze is a settlement freeze," Erekat said.
The Palestinians also demand that negotiations resume on the same terms as previous rounds, led by Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert. This would include Israel's willingness to discuss all so-called core issues, including a partition of Jerusalem. Netanyahu has said Jerusalem is off-limits in negotiations, and his proposed settlement slowdown does not include the city.
Over four days, Mitchell met twice with Abbas and four times with Netanyahu, including twice on Friday before Mitchell left the region.
A senior Israeli official said that wide gaps remained, but would not comment on the content of the meetings. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with Israeli briefing regulations.
It appears unlikely, however, that Netanyahu would change his mind about settlement expansion. In recent days, his government announced bids for hundreds more homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and his hardline government rests on the support of Jewish settlers and their political allies.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the administration would keep pushing for a peace deal.
"I guarantee you that President Obama and I are very patient and very determined," she said in a speech to the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "We know that this is not an easy road for anyone to travel."
However, she also indicated that the administration would not try to impose a solution.
"We are going to do all we can to persuade, cajole, encourage the parties themselves to make that agreement. The United States cannot make it. The Arab nations cannot make it. It is up to the Palestinians and Israelis," she said. "And to that end, we expect both sides, not just one side, but both sides to be actively engaged and willing to work towards that resolution."
In the meantime, a meeting between Obama, Abbas and Netanyahu in New York next week appears to be a long shot.
The senior Israeli official said that for now, Netanyahu is set to fly to New York late Wednesday and deliver a speech the following day. If a trilateral session was to be arranged, the prime minister could leave for the U.S. earlier, the official said, adding that a Netanyahu-Obama meeting was not on the agenda.
Abbas, meanwhile, is conflicted about whether to meet with Netanyahu as a courtesy to Obama, said senior Palestinian officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the deliberations.
Several senior aides urged Abbas not to sit down with Netanyahu without having set the terms for negotiations, arguing that otherwise it would be seen as a sign of weakness and hurt his standing at home.
Abbas faces domestic pressure
Abbas is locked in a power struggle with the Islamic militant group Hamas, which overran the Gaza Strip in 2007, leaving him only in control of the West Bank. Hamas has used lack of progress in negotiations to try to discredit Abbas.
In the Gaza town of Beit Lahia, Hamas legislator Mushir al-Masri told a rally Friday that negotiations are a waste of time.
"The choice of negotiations has proven a failure, and it's time that Palestinian negotiators abandon this worthless and destructive tool and go back to holy war and resistance," al-Masri told a crowd.
In other developments, the World Bank warned in a report Friday that donor countries will have to keep giving large amounts of aid to the Abbas government, unless Israel eases access of Palestinian goods to Israeli and world markets.
Senior representatives of the donor countries meet next week as part of the General Assembly and review their aid program to the Palestinians.
Donor countries have given billions of dollars to the Palestinians since 1993, including $1.8 billion in 2008 and an expected $1.1 billion in 2009. However, the economy has been held back by Israeli restrictions on Palestinian trade and movement, imposed after the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in 2000.
In recent months, Israel has eased some restrictions inside the West Bank, prompting modest economic growth. However, the West Bank and Gaza remain cut off from each other, and West Bank exports are hampered by slow movement at Israeli crossings.
The Abbas government is still short of money, the bank said, citing a $400 million financing gap for this year.