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Palestinians call for halt to Israeli settlements

From Kareem Khadder, CNN
Workers build new housing on Sunday in Ariel, an Israeli settlement on the West Bank.
Workers build new housing on Sunday in Ariel, an Israeli settlement on the West Bank.
  • Mitchell visits Ramallah for talks
  • Settlements remain the sticking point
  • The envoy is visiting the region in a diplomatic push

Ramallah, West Bank (CNN) -- Palestinian officials met with U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell on Thursday and called for Israel to halt settlement activities, the chief Palestinian negotiator said.

"We requested the Israeli government to halt all settlement activities including natural growth to give the peace process a chance it deserves," said Saeb Erakat, speaking to reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

"We are not against the direct negotiations and its continuation, but the one who owns the key to these negotiations and its continuation is the Israeli prime minister," Erakat said, referring to Benjamin Netanyahu.

An Israeli settlement freeze expired on Sunday and more construction started just hours later. That's sparked concern that the controversial issue could become a sticking point that would stall face-to-face talks between Palestinians and Israelis, which resumed earlier this month after an 18-month hiatus.

Palestinian officials have previously said that if building resumes on territory they consider part of a future Palestinian state, they will walk away from the negotiations.

There are news reports that U.S. and Palestinian negotatiators are trying to persuade Israel to extend the freeze at least for another two months.

Video: Palestinian PM lays future foundations

Mitchell, the former Maine senator and prominent American diplomat, is visiting the region as part of a U.S. diplomatic push to help keep face-to-face peace talks on track. He met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday after meeting Wednesday with Netanyahu.

Mitchell reaffirmed the importance of comprehensive peace in the region, including Israelis and Palestinians agreeing on a two-state solution and Israel normalizing its relations with Syria and Lebanon.

"We recognize and said at the outset that there would be difficulties, ups and downs and there will be many obstacles to the peace process, including some who will like to see the process fail and who take actions -- including use of violence -- to prevent it from succeeding," Mitchell said.

Erakat praised the Obama administration's efforts and said discussions will be continued.

"We are exerting every possible effort in order to ensure that the senator succeeds in his mission in maintaining the direct negotiations," Erakat said.

Netanyahu said this week that he would meet with Abbas in Paris, France, next month at French President Nicolas Sarkozy's invitation.

"I believe with my whole heart that it is in our power to reach a framework agreement within a year and change the history of the Middle East," he said.