Mitchell announces Israeli-Palestinian talks

WASHINGTON (JTA) — U.S. special Middle East envoy George Mitchell announced the start of proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mitchell will broker the indirect talks, which over the next few weeks will have him shuttling between the Palestinian territories and Israel.

"We’ve begun to discuss the structure and scope of these talks, and I will return to the region next week to continue our discussions," Mitchell, who has been in the area since Saturday, said in a statement released Monday afternoon. "As we’ve said many times, we hope that these will lead to direct negotiations as soon as possible."

The Palestinians have refused to engage in direct talks until Israel places a freeze on all settlement construction, including eastern Jerusalem. Israel has only partially frozen settlement expansion. On Monday it announced  approval for the construction of 112 new apartments in a West Bank settlement, a move that angered Palestinians who had just agreed to the new round of indirect talks.

Mitchell addressed the concerns in his statement.

"We also again encourage the parties, and all concerned, to refrain from any statements or actions which may inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks," he said.

Mitchell met for five hours on Monday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Following the meeting, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that "the Palestinians made it clear to Mitchell that if the Israelis increase the settlements, raids of cities and assassinations during each of his visits to the region, this casts a serious doubt over the American peace efforts."

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived Monday afternoon in Israel.

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