Arab League delay keeps Israeli peace talks on life support

JERUSALEM — Israeli and Arab leaders Friday continued to search for a compromise that would allow peace talks to continue this weekend, but both sides acknowledged that the current negotiations were making no progress.

As Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sought consensus within his cabinet, possibly for a brief extension to the expired settlements freeze, the Arab League announced that it was drafting alternative plans for continuing the peace talks.

"We will meet to formulate the beginning of alternatives within the framework that the negotiations are not bearing fruit," said Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, after a meeting Friday in Libya.

Anonymous officials quoted in the Arab news media said Arab countries would allow up to one month to search for alternatives, effectively delaying a decision amid international pressure for the peace talks to press forward.

The Arab League had been expected to vote on the position of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to suspend the talks until Israel agreed to freeze all construction in the West Bank settlements.

Egypt and Jordan had already decided to back Abbas' position, but Moussa said that the Arab League would take more time to continue to find compromises.

"There are no talks at the moment because the position of the Israelis is very, very negative. They are not cooperating in the negotiations," Moussa said.

The apparent decision by the Arab League represents a small victory for US Mideast Peace envoy George Mitchell — buying him time to try and find a way for the direct talks to continue.

Israel's most recent, 10-month freeze on settlements expired Sept. 26. For much of that time, Israeli and Palestinian leaders held indirect "proximity" talks, mediated by Mitchell.

Israeli and Palestinian leadership had agreed to start direct negotiations with great fanfare at the White House on Sept. 2.

But the looming end to the settlement freeze cast a shadow over the talks before they got underway. As settlers celebrated the end of the freeze by launching hundreds of building projects in the West Bank, Palestinians confirmed that they would not begin to meet to talk peace until that building stopped.

Settlements have long been a major stumbling bloc in peace negotiations.

Palestinians see them as a land grab by Israel. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has stated repeatedly that it is "pointless" for Palestinians to continue negotiations while settlements continue to expand on land earmarked for a future Palestinian state.

Israel, meanwhile, remains torn on the settlements with a recent poll by the Israeli company Dahaf finding that 54 percent of Israelis support their continued growth. Netanyahu, meanwhile, heads a largely right-wing coalition that is close to the settler movement.

While a number of Israeli lawmakers have spoken out in support of the settlements, few within Netanyahu's inner cabinet have agreed to speak publically about the behind-the-scenes negotiations to reach a compromise.

Israeli news media reported that the White House was putting "significant" pressure on Netanyahu, and had offered him a package that would include key security promises in exchange for extending a freeze on the settlements.

"We are considering a number of options at the moment, and are in daily communication with both the U.S. and other parties who want to be involved in the peace process," said one Israeli official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the negotiations.

He confirmed that several compromises had been suggested which would institute some form of a freeze on settlement construction for "a limited time." Abbas has said that a "three to four month" freeze would be necessary to "give peace a chance."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent) MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

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