Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says he will wait at least a week before deciding whether to break off peace talks with the U.S. and Israel, buying the Obama administration a bit more time as it began yet another urgent round of diplomacy in the hopes of preventing the fragile peace drive from collapsing.
The administration sent its top negotiator, former senator George Mitchell, to the region Monday night, one day after a 10 month Israeli settlement construction freeze ended. He's expected to meet the Israelis on Wednesday and the Palestinians on Thursday.
Israel's government defied repeated calls to extend the moratorium from President Obama, who devoted much of his annual address to the United Nations on Thursday to the topic. Abbas has repeatedly threatened to walk out on talks if construction resumes.
At a press conference in Paris Monday, however, Abbas left the door open for talks to continue, telling reporters "we will not have any quick reactions."
In another sign they are not yet ready to walk away from talks, both sides accepted an offer from French President Nicolas Sarkozy to host a meeting between them next month.
Abbas is expected to consult next week with the Arab League, whose support could provide him political cover to continue negotiations. The United States has been pushing Arab countries to support the process, another major part of Obama's U.N. speech.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Arab leaders last week with that very message, and the peace process was a major topic when she met Monday with Syria's foreign minister in New York, a sign that the U.S. plans to broaden peace talks to involve all of Israel's neighbors even as negotiations appear endangered.
Clinton's spokesman PJ Crowley said today that the U.S. was "disappointed" that Israel chose not to extend the moratorium, but vowed a U.S. commitment to continue to push the process forward.
As the clock ticked down to the deadline to extend the freeze on Sunday, Clinton placed calls to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. officials urged both sides to resist taking steps that could endanger progress. Clinton and Netanyahu spoke again by phone and Mitchell spoke with Abbas Monday.
Construction in the settlements has been limited since the moratorium ended Sunday, with only a few symbolic projects moving ahead, but that may be due more to the Jewish holidays that will keep construction crews off the job for a few more days.
This latest round of peace talks is just weeks old, but already endangered by the impasse over settlements. Settlements in the West Bank are a difficult subject, as they are entangled in a larger and more contentious negotiaton about the borders of each side in a final deal. Experts say that while they expect a deal to ultimately allow negotiations to continue, this latest spat is a symptom of the mistrust between both sides that could ultimately doom the talks, as they have in the past.
"I think the negotiations will resume after what I would call a decent interval," said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Mideast peace negotiator and now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.
"But none of this augurs particularly well for the future of this process, because if the two sides aren't prepared to give one another the benefit of the doubt on an issue like this, and if they're this mistrustful, you have to wonder will they be able to work through issues like Jerusalem, borders, security, and refugees," he said.
"I think this is indicative of the 'same old, same old' approach being taken, which itself is ultimately doomed," said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator and now at the New America Foundation in Washington. "Whether we get past this moment or not, ultimately the success will depend on a restructuring of this."
Levy said neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have shown the will needed to strike a deal on their own. Rather, he believes it will take a stronger American hand to push the parties across the finish line.
"This may not bring you down, but getting past it doesn't mean we're in a great place," he said of the current impasse.