Palestinian president to meet Obama in May

Afp April 25, 2010

RAMALLAH: Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has been invited to meet US President Barack Obama in Washington next month to discuss efforts to revive the peace process with Israel.

The invitation was delivered by Obama's envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, who met Abbas in the occupied West Bank on Friday, according to chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat.

"Mitchell invited president Abbas to visit the United States in May and he has responded positively to the invitation," said Erakat, adding that the exact date of the talks has yet to be determined.

The two leaders were expected to discuss efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks suspended in December 2008 after the start of Israel's massive military campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The United States has been pressing the two sides to return to negotiations for months, but the Palestinians have refused to do so without a complete Israeli settlement freeze including in occupied and annexed east Jerusalem.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz meanwhile reported that indirect "proximity" talks between the two sides would resume no later than mid-May, citing unnamed officials involved in the peace efforts.

The daily said Obama has informed Abbas that he did not succeed in convincing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze settlements in east Jerusalem but that the hawkish premier would refrain from taking "significant" actions there during the talks.

It also said the negotiations would encompass all the core issues of the decades-old conflict, including Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and final borders.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Friday that he saw the current diplomacy by the US Middle East envoy leading to agreement within weeks on renewed peace talks with the Palestinians.

"I get the impression there is a very intensive effort to start them," Barak told Israel's Channel One television. "I imagine and I very much hope that maybe within the next two weeks we shall achieve indirect talks," he said. His remarks came as Mitchell held a flurry of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials that were to continue on Sunday.

The Palestinians, with backing from Arab states, reluctantly agreed to indirect US-brokered talks in March but the effort collapsed days later when Israel announced the construction of 1,600 new housing units in east Jerusalem.

The planned settlement expansion infuriated the Palestinians and drew a harsh rebuke from Washington because it came during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden.

Israel occupied east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War, annexed it in a move not recognised by the international community, and today views the entire city as its "eternal, undivided" capital.

The Palestinians have always demanded mostly Arab east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state and view settlement construction in the occupied territories as a major threat to its viability.

The impasse over settlements has strained relations between Israel and its closest ally the United States, which had hoped to relaunch peace talks as part of a wider effort to engage the Muslim world.

Nearly a half million Israelis live in more than 120 settlements scattered across the occupied West Bank including east Jerusalem, territories that are home to nearly 2.5 million Palestinians.