Top National Security Council Middle East strategist Dennis Ross is in Israel, Israeli sources tell POLITICO, ahead of the launch of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Washington next week.
"Ross is here 'to resolve the settlement freeze triangle,'" an Israeli source says, referring to whether Israel will agree to extend a freeze on Israeli settlement building currently due to expire Sept. 26.
Ross is meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and lead Israeli negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, the Israeli source told POLITICO.
Netanyahu has publicly insisted that there should be no preconditions on the direct talks set to get underway next week. But there have been mixed indications about whether Netanyahu has reached certain confidential understandings with President Obama about restraint on settlement activity and other confidence-building steps, including in a White House meeting last month.
Ross's visit could be about helping to clarify what Netanyahu may agree to ahead of the talks now that the Palestinians have agreed to direct talks, and what he might consider agreeing to after he hears from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and President Obama next week, former U.S. peace negotiator Aaron Miller suggested.
The White House did not immediately respond to queries on Ross's travel.
The State Department said Thursday that David Hale, the deputy to the Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell and the NSC's Dan Shapiro are in the region for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials to prepare for direct talks next week.
Ross is scheduled only to meet with Israelis, a Washington-based Middle East hand said Thursday.
Israeli media reported that Netanyahu is holding meetings Thursday night with Molcho, adviser Ron Dermer and National Security Advisor Uzi Arad about the upcoming talks.