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Settlements Defy Solution

By: Jeffrey Heller, Reuters in Arab News


JERUSALEM: US envoy George Mitchell and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not agree on a Jewish settlement freeze in talks on Tuesday but said negotiations were advancing.

“We are making progress,” Netanyahu told Israel Army radio. “I think we held a very important and productive talk and we will continue with the effort which, I believe, in the end will succeed in advancing peace and security between us and our Palestinian neighbors and the region in general.”

After more than two hours of talks with Netanyahu, Mitchell told reporters: “We have made good progress.” Mitchell said he looked forward to continuing discussions with Netanyahu and moving toward a “comprehensive peace” envisioned by US President Barack Obama. He did not say when he would next meet the Israeli leader.

Obama’s demand, in line with a 2003 peace plan, to freeze Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem has met stiff resistance from Netanyahu, the most serious rift in US-Israeli relations in a decade.

The pressure on Israel over the settlements by President Barack Obama’s administration is exceptional. Previous US administrations criticized settlement construction as counterproductive but have generally tolerated it.

In response to the stepped-up pressure, Israeli settlers set up several tents and shacks on hilltops in the West Bank on Monday night. Settlement supporters also rallied in Jerusalem, holding signs condemning the US administration.

Israel captured the West Bank, now home to some 2.5 million Palestinians, in 1967. The number of Israeli settlers there has more than doubled since the mid-1990s and now stands at around 300,000, in addition to another 180,000 Israelis living in Jewish neighborhoods built by Israel in East Jerusalem, also captured in 1967. Neither Mitchell nor Netanyahu, who in his public comments has played down the dispute with Washington, mentioned settlements in their remarks to reporters on Tuesday.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said peace talks with Israel, suspended since late last year, could not resume unless Netanyahu stopped all settlement activity.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has publicly raised the possibility of a deal under which Israel would halt construction in settlements but complete projects under way in return for steps by Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel.

Arab moves toward commercial or diplomatic ties with Israel could help Netanyahu persuade partners in his right-leaning coalition to accept a compromise on settlements.

But there has been little indication from Arab countries in the region they would make such gestures without a complete settlement freeze.

At a meeting in the West Bank on Monday, Mitchell informed Abbas there was “still a gap between us and the Israelis on the settlements issue,” a Palestinian official told Reuters.

After seeing Mitchell, Netanyahu visited the Israeli-controlled Allenby Bridge crossing between the West Bank and Jordan. He has ordered its opening hours to be extended to ease the movement of Palestinian commercial goods.

“We are not waiting, we are doing. We are opening roadblocks, we are opening ties, we are opening the roads to peace,” Netanyahu told reporters.

Mitchell has praised Israel for removing some of its military checkpoints in the West Bank in a declared bid to bolster the Western-backed Abbas and the Palestinian economy.

But Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said that moving a “handful” of roadblocks changed little. Mitchell has held top-level talks in Britain, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Egypt and Israel over the past week. Netanyahu is to hold talks on Wednesday with US national security adviser Jim Jones and other Middle East specialists sent to the region by the White House.