JERUSALEM: US envoy George Mitchell and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton converged on Israel and the Palestinian territories Thursday in a bid to rescue peace talks on the verge of collapse.
Mitchell was due to meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas at midday (1000 GMT) at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, while Ashton was due to arrive in the region for two days of talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Abbas and Mitchell.
An EU official in Jerusalem said Ashton would land in the early evening and meet Abbas at around 8:30 pm (1830 GMT).
She is to meet Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad on Friday morning then have talks with Netanyahu and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, the official added.
The diplomats are seeking to stave off the breakdown of peace negotiations, which only restarted this month, in the face of Israel’s refusal to extend a 10-month moratorium on Jewish settlement building in the West Bank, as demanded by the Palestinians and urged by the European Union and the United States.
The moratorium ran out on Sunday but the Palestinians have said they will take no final decision or whether or not to quit the talks until after Abbas has conferred with Arab foreign ministers.
The Palestinian leader had been due to meet the ministers in Cairo next Monday but the Arab League announced on Thursday that the meeting has been put off until next Wednesday to give more time for US-led efforts to save the peace talks.
"It has been decided that the meeting of the Arab League peace committee will take place on October 6," Ahmed Eissa, spokesman for Arab League chief Amr Mussa, told AFP.
The postponement was intended to "allow Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas to attend the meeting, in light of the latest developments and efforts by the United States for peace talks," Eissa said.
Netanyahu, whose ruling coalition depends heavily on nationalist hardliners close to the settler movement, has baulked at renewing the partial freeze on construction while urging Abbas to stick with the talks, which were relaunched on September 2 after a 20-month hiatus.
Following a meeting with the US envoy on Wednesday, Netanyahu’s office quoted Mitchell as saying he had come to bring a message of reassurance about Washington’s commitment to reaching a comprehensive peace in the region, despite the numerous "potholes" along the way.
Israel’s Maariv daily reported that in return for a 60-day extension of the settlement freeze, President Barack Obama was offering Netanyahu a guarantee that he would supply Israel with advanced weapons and block any attempt to bring the issue of Palestinian statehood to the UN Security Council.
Israel’s Y-net news website said senior Obama advisor Dennis Ross had told key senators that the president wanted "two months more of a freeze."
Palestinian media quoted a Palestinian official they did not identify as saying that the next 48 hours would be crucial in US efforts to persuade Israel to extend the moratorium and keep the negotiations afloat.
Ashton, under fire at home for failing to raise the EU’s profile in the Middle East, announced on Wednesday that she would make a previously unscheduled stopover in the region on her way back from a US trip.
"I have decided to travel directly from the United States to the Middle East as a matter of priority to urge both Israelis and Palestinians to find a satisfactory way for negotiations to continue and gather momentum," she said in a statement.
"As I have said, the EU regrets the Israeli decision not to extend the moratorium on settlements.
She said she had already spoken by telephone to both Abbas and Netanyahu "to express the EU’s determination to help them find a way forward in the talks".