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Mitchell in Israel to jumpstart talks

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell met with Israeli President Shimon Peres on Sunday and sounded optimistic that a deal on settlements could boost peace talks before the end of the month.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 2009

Israel's President Shimon Peres (r.) meets US Middle East envoy George Mitchell in Jerusalem on Sunday. Mitchell said he hoped to wrap up an agreement over the next few days in talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on a settlement freeze and a revival of peace negotiations.

Jim Hollander/ Reuters

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Tel Aviv

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell sounded cautiously optimistic before meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres on Sunday about the prospects for an agreement before October on a settlement freeze that's expected to jump start peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

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Mr. Mitchell, who is scheduled to meet on Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and on Tuesday with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said that while reports in the Israeli press that a framework for peace talks is already in place are "premature," they might become accurate in the "very near future."

It's the most upbeat public assessment of the talks over the course of a four-month dialogue that has revealed serious fissures between President Obama and Mr. Netanyahu. Mitchell concurred with Peres' suggestion that renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks could occur before the end of September.

"We share your sense of urgency," he said in remarks to reporters before holding talks with Peres. "It is our intention to conclude this phase of our discussions in the very near future, within the time frames that you suggest to enable us to move on to the next and really the more important phase."

A Palestinian state in two years?

A report in the center-left Israeli daily Haaretz said that in addition to a settlement freeze, the sides had reached an understanding that a Palestinian state would be declared in two years and that the talks would initially focus on agreeing to a mutual border based on the Green Line that prevailed before Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967.

The US and Israel have been negotiating for months on an Obama administration demand to halt all expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a territory claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.

Israel has resisted a freeze, saying such a step would preclude "normal" life for some 300,000 residents in the settlements. Last week it announced approval for 455 new housing units, irking the international community.

Israel's no 'sucker'

Netanyahu needed the move to shore up support from his voting base and members of his Likud party. On Thursday he told party members that while he is ready for concessions, Israel won't be a "sucker" in the talks.

Indeed, officials in Jerusalem are hoping that the US can convince Arab states to respond to a deal on construction with some steps to normalize relations with the Jewish state, though there's been no indication that Arab countries are ready to do that.

"It looks like they are headed toward a conclusion," says Yossi Alpher, the co-editor of the website Bitterlemons.org, a forum for Israeli-Palestinian opinion and analysis.

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