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Abbas to meet Obama And Netanyahu, But Won't Negotiate

Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas (R) with U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell in Ramallah in July

Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas (R) with U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell in Ramallah in July

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -- U.S. President Barack Obama's summit this week with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders does not signal a full re-launch of peace talks, which remain blocked by profound disagreement, a Palestinian official said.

"The meeting does not mean negotiations," a spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas said on September 20 after the White House announced the first encounter between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the latter took office in March.

The summit will take place on September 22 in New York during the U.N. General Assembly, U.S. officials said. They called it a mark of the president's personal commitment to Middle East peace but played down the prospect of major immediate developments.

"These three leaders are going to sit down in the same room and continue to narrow the gaps," a U.S. official said.

However, neither side has shown any shift away from the deadlock that was evident on Friday when Obama's special envoy George Mitchell completed a week shuttling around the region.

Each blamed the other for a failure to re-launch talks that were suspended in December while Israel and Hamas fought in the Gaza Strip. Many analysts doubt Obama's ability to end six decades of conflict in his quest to stabilize the Middle East.

Israel welcomed a meeting "without preconditions". But Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah repeated Palestinian demands, echoed by Washington since Obama took office in January, that Netanyahu should halt settlement expansion before full-blown talks resume.

On September 18, Netanyahu offered Mitchell a nine-month freeze in settlement building in the West Bank, Israeli officials said, adding that Mitchell was pressing for a one-year freeze. Abbas wants an open-ended halt that also includes East Jerusalem.

Abu Rdainah also reiterated a demand that Israel commit from the start of negotiations to reaching permanent resolutions of all the core issues of the conflict -- including borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

Netanyahu, who highlights the fact that Abbas's authority is limited since Islamist Hamas seized Gaza in 2007, has suggested talks focus on interim improvements in security and prosperity.

Hamas Rejection

Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, addressing worshippers in Gaza on the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr, repeated that Hamas would not recognize any compromise agreement Abbas made with Israel.

One or two rockets were fired overnight at Israel from Gaza, the Israeli army said. As with most such sporadic fire since last winter's war in the enclave, there was no report of damage or injury as Israel took a holiday to mark the Jewish New Year.

Israel signed up to a U.S.-backed peace plan in 2003, the "road map". It called for a halt to building in the Jewish settlements that Palestinians say are eating away at the viability of a future state in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

While Netanyahu has been under the heaviest U.S. pressure on Israel in years, he has insisted settlers should be allowed to continue building as their families grow and rules out any discussion on sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinians.

Abu Rdainah said: "First, negotiations should focus on the six final status issues without any postponement of any issue.

"Second, all settlement must be halted.

"This meeting (on September 22) does not mean we are restarting negotiations because there is no agreement on these two issues."

A senior Netanyahu aide said: "The meeting will be held without preconditions, as the prime minister had always wanted."

Mitchell praised Obama for stepping in: "It is another sign of the president's deep commitment to comprehensive peace."

But though Israeli and Palestinian officials have long said they were unlikely to scorn a joint invitation from Obama, both sides are deeply skeptical of his ability to bring peace.

"The Americans have failed to convince the Israelis to halt settlement and now they want a photo opportunity," a Palestinian official said on September 20. "It's a victory for Netanyahu."

An Israeli official last week cited the rift between Abbas and Hamas and the strength of settlers in Netanyahu's coalition for not expecting the mutual concessions needed to make peace.

"With all due respect to Obama, this is not realistic," he said. "Everyone wants a process ... but nobody actually wants peace -- because peace, you have to pay for."