Mitchell with PM Netanyahu
Mitchell with PM NetanyahuIsrael news photo: Flash 90

Pre-talk negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority remain stalled but U.S. envoy George Mitchell is returning to Israel Monday for another stab at bringing the Palestinian Authority and Israel together for face-to-face discussions on establishing a new PA country.

"Senator George Mitchell is arriving in Tel Aviv kind of as we speak," a State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters at the daily briefing Monday. "We think that what he needs to accomplish can be done with rather quick meetings with both of the leaders."

He said Mitchell will spend two days in the region, one day with Israeli leaders and the other with PA officials. Reflecting widespread skepticism that the American attempts will lead to anything concrete, Crowley added, "Based on a lot of work that's been done in recent days, Senator Mitchell will basically see if both sides are ready in fact to make the commitment to begin direct negotiations," Crowley said.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has called on PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to resume direct negotiations, like those held under the previous administration, led by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Abbas has refused, insisting that Israel first meet several PA demands, including a complete construction freeze for Jews living in Judea, Samaria and north, south and east Jerusalem, and an agreement to use the 1949 armistice line as a starting point in talks on the borders of a PA state.

The Netanyahu government imposed a 10-month building freeze on Jews in Judea and Samaria in order to encourage Abbas to agree to direct talks. The freeze ends in late September, and failure by Mitchell to make headway by then might leave an impasse that could result in renewed violence or an attempt by the PA to bypass the United States. Abbas has said that time is on his side and that he can wait for the right time to turn to the United Nations to recognize the PA as a country within Israel's current borders.

However, he hinted to reporters in Ramallah Monday night that he might agree to direct talks without Israel's satisfying his conditions. "Until now, we did not agree," he said. "We may face other pressures that we cannot endure. If that happens, I will study this thing with the leadership ... and take the appropriate decision."

Several international media outlets reported last week that special U.S. envoy George Mitchell would visit Israel in the coming days to meet with Netanyahu and Abbas and attempt to move talks forward. Israel Radio reported Sunday that Mitchell had decided to postpone his visit. However, PA officials told the Xinhua news agency that they were unaware of any change in the envoy's travel plans.

Mitchell's deputy, David Hale, met with Abbas last week. Abbas reiterated his demands and refused to move to direct talks.

In his previous visit, Mitchell reportedly offered a land swap that would give the PA land from within Israel's 1949 borders in exchange for major Jewish population centers in Judea and Samaria.