US envoy faces stalemate over settlements

A burst of shuttle diplomacy by President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy today did not produce immediate results, with Palestinian and Israeli leaders still at odds over terms for resuming direct talks.

An Israeli official said after envoy George Mitchell met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem that Israel might freeze settlements in the West Bank for longer than the six months it previously suggested, but not for as long as a year.

"Israel will agree to extend the freeze beyond six months - possibly nine months, but less than a year," the official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

However, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, speaking after a later meeting between Mitchell and President Mahmoud Abbas in the nearby West Bank city of Ramallah, told reporters: "Mitchell's shuttle visit has ended without agreement.

"There is no agreement yet with the Israeli side and no middle ground solution," Erekat said as Mitchell headed back to Jerusalem for a planned further meeting with Netanyahu.

Mitchell was due to head home later on Friday.

Abbas has demanded a full halt to settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a condition for resuming negotiations on a final peace settlement that were broken off in December. Obama has endorsed that call, urging both sides to meet the terms of a 2003 US-backed "road map" for peace.

Netanyahu has ruled out stopping construction in East Jerusalem and wants settlements in the West Bank to be able to grow to accommodate the expanding families of current settlers.

With both sides heading into respective public holidays - the Jewish New Year and Muslim Eid al-Fitr - the former senator is on a tight deadline to persuade the two leaders to join Obama at a possible trilateral meeting in New York, when all three are to attend next week's General Assembly of the United Nations.

Erekat said such a meeting was still possible - but would be "meaningless" with a change in position by Netanyahu.

Both Palestinian and Israeli officials acknowledge that it will be hard for their leaders to refuse an invitation from Obama, who has pledged to work to settle six decades of conflict as part of efforts to stabilise the Middle East as a whole.

However, there is little indication that Netanyahu, whose coalition has support from West Bank settlers, will offer more than a temporary freeze in construction lasting some months.

A further key issue is Israeli reluctance to commit to a target schedule for reaching a final settlement, possibly in no more than two years, that would create a Palestinian state.

Abbas, facing a strong challenge from the Islamist movement Hamas which controls the Gaza Strip, has rejected suggestions that he negotiate possible temporary arrangements with Israel.