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RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Frustrated by a new impasse, the White House sent its Mideast envoy to the region Tuesday in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the collapse of peace talks over Israel's decision to allow new construction in West Bank settlements.
Israel refuses to renew a 10-month-old moratorium on housing starts that expired over the weekend, while the Palestinians say there's no point in negotiating if settlements keep expanding on lands they want for their state.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has repeatedly threatened to quit the talks unless the freeze continues, has so far rejected informal Israeli proposals of a watered-down moratorium, such as building only in some settlements, Abbas advisers said Tuesday.
However, the Palestinian leader seemed reluctant to walk away from the negotiations, which began just a month ago. Even though the moratorium expired Sunday, he has given the U.S. another week to try to find a compromise, saying he will announce his decision only after Arab foreign ministers meet in Cairo on Monday.
With that deadline looming, U.S. envoy George Mitchell arrived in Israel on Tuesday in a last-minute push to close the gaps.
"We want the Palestinians to stay in the direct negotiations and we want the Israelis to demonstrate that it is in the Palestinian interest to stay in these negotiations," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley in Washington.
"Are we frustrated?" he said. "Of course, we're frustrated. But we understand that these are just very very difficult (issues.)" Crowley expressed hope the Arab League would encourage Abbas to remain in the peace talks.
Mitchell was to meet early Wednesday with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a political centrist who, with the West Bank under military rule, has sweeping powers to veto or approve settlement projects.
Officials close to Barak have said he favors requiring any future settlement construction to receive his personal approval — a move that would in effect leave a building freeze in place. It remains unclear whether Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, supports the proposal.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Mitchell was to speak separately with Netanyahu and Abbas.
In a statement, Netanyahu said he hoped negotiations would continue, though he gave no indication he was willing to extend the settlement freeze. "I believe with a full heart that it is in our power to get to a framework agreement within a year, and to change the history of the Middle East," he said.
Abbas faces a tough choice.
He would lose more credibility among his already extremely skeptical constituents if he backs down on his demands for a settlement freeze. He'd also give an inadvertent boost to his Islamic militant Hamas rivals who run the Gaza Strip, one of the lands that is to make up a Palestinian state.
However, Abbas' international standing and future as a leader are tied to the quest for a peace deal.
The 75-year-old Abbas also believes that only negotiations with Israel can deliver a Palestinian state. He was among the first top Palestinian officials to criticize the armed Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation that erupted 10 years ago Tuesday.
President Barack Obama has promised Abbas to work hard to broker a deal within a year.
"Abbas has no choice but to continue the negotiations," said Palestinian analyst Hani al-Masri. "He wants to give this American administration a chance."
Still, some Abbas advisers suggested Tuesday that quitting the talks remains an option. "It would be unrealistic to go for negotiations under the shadow of the Israeli bulldozers on our land," said Mohammed Dahlan, a senior member of Abbas' Fatah movement.
On the upside for Abbas, progress was reported this week in long-stalled reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah.
Mending the rift would give Abbas a stronger position in negotiations and reduce the risk of Hamas trying to derail the talks with violence. A month ago, as talks were launched in Washington, Hamas gunmen killed four Israelis and wounded two others in a pair of West Bank shooting attacks.
However, tentative reconciliation deals have broken down in the past, in part because of Western insistence that Hamas must soften its hard-line positions.
In the end, Abbas will have to decide alone on the fate of the peace talks. He'll consult with members of Fatah and the PLO in coming days, but they — along with the Arab League — are expected to rubber-stamp any decision he makes.
A breakdown of negotiations, so soon after their launch, would be a major diplomatic setback for Obama. Another dead end after 17 years of intermittent Israeli-Palestinian talks could also boost militants and possibly lead to more violence.
However, another full-scale uprising seems unlikely in the Abbas-run West Bank, where a modest economic recovery after years of conflict-driven downturn means Palestinians have more to lose.
The second Palestinian revolt against Israeli occupation erupted on Sept. 28, 2000, after the failure of a U.S.-hosted Mideast peace summit that summer. The conflict claimed thousands of lives, the vast majority on the Palestinian side, but fizzled after Abbas was elected president in 2005.
In the West Bank, the anniversary passed largely unnoticed.
In Gaza, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas briefly mentioned the date at the start of his weekly Cabinet meeting, saying that "our people will not lay down their arms as long as there is an enemy on our land."