US Middle East envoy George Mitchell is scheduled to arrive on Tuesday to continue efforts to find a compromise to the settlement moratorium issue, as only muted sounds of building were heard on Monday in a few settlements, and voices of disappointment were raised around the world that Israel didn’t extend the freeze.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has not said anything publicly about the end of the settlement construction moratorium since it expired at midnight on Sunday, is scheduled to meet with Mitchell on Wednesday. On Monday he met for the second time in four days with Quartet envoy Tony Blair, speaking with him at his private residence in Caesarea.
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Blair also met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has been intensely involved in trying to find a compromise solution. Blair left the region after those talks.
Netanyahu, according to sources in his office, was on the phone throughout the day on Monday with leaders around the world and in Washington.
“The diplomatic ball is very much in play to ensure a continuation of the talks [with the Palestinian Authority],” one government source said.
In the meantime, the official added, quoting from an interview Ambassador to the US Michael Oren gave over the weekend to the American media, construction will be “responsible, restrained and limited.”
While Netanyahu met on Monday with Barak and discussed the situation with a number of his other cabinet ministers, the next cabinet meeting – where the issue will surely be addressed – is not expected until Monday, the same day the Arab League is slated to meet to discuss the issue. Netanyahu is unlikely to say anything publicly on the matter until then.
A number of ministers, including the Likud’s Yuli Edelstein and Israel Beiteinu’s Uzi Landau, have taken Barak to task in recent days for raising various compromise proposals with US officials without keeping them informed.
Meanwhile, PA President Mahmoud Abbas said in Paris on Monday that he would not “react hastily” and would wait until after the Arab League meeting on October 4 to decide on his next step. Abbas had repeatedly threatened to bolt the talks if the freeze was not extended.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, standing alongside Abbas, said “the settlements must stop.”
He also said that he has invited Netanyahu, Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to a meeting in Paris at the end of October, a move widely interpreted in Jerusalem as an attempt to carve out a role for France, and by extension the EU, in the emerging diplomatic process.
The EU was not represented at the Washington summit where direct talks were relaunched at the beginning of the month.
Asked whether Netanyahu was in favor of a Paris summit, one source in his office said, “The prime minister is always agreeable to meeting the Palestinian leader any time, any place. He believes there is no substitute for direct dialogue between leaders, and that if we are ultimately to succeed in the peace process it will be because leaders on both side are making historic decisions.”
Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office, meanwhile, seemed unfazed by international criticism of the decision not to extend the moratorium, with one official saying that some of the comment was expected, and that “I think there is wide international support for continuing the direct talks.”
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, in the first Obama administration comment on the matter since the freeze ended, said the US was “disappointed” by the Israeli decision, but remained “focused on our long-term objective and will be talking to the parties about the implications of the Israeli decision.”
Both US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Jerusalem over the past two weeks to extend the moratorium, and for the Palestinians to remain in the talks. Crowley said that position had not changed, and he praised Abbas for not immediately walking away from the talks.
Eighty-seven US senators, meanwhile, sent a letter to Obama on Monday expressing appreciation for restarting direct negotiations, and urging him to “continue to emphasize to Israeli and Palestinian leaders that direct talks, while difficult, provide the best hope of reaching a meaningful and lasting peace agreement.”
The letter praised Netanyahu for not abandoning the talks following the terrorist attack near Hebron that killed four people at the start of the negotiations, and wrote that it is critical that all sides stay at the table. In a clear reference to Abbas’s threats to bolt the talks, the letter read, “Neither side should make threats to leave just as the talks are getting started.”
Elsewhere around the world, British Secretary William Hague, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon all issued condemnations of the government’s decision to let the moratorium lapse.
While expressing “regret” for Israel’s decision, and reiterating the EU’s position that settlements are illegal under international law, Ashton urged the parties “to act responsibly.”
There is no alternative to a negotiated solution,” she said in her statement. “Therefore, it is in everybody’s interest to find a satisfactory way for the negotiations to continue and gather momentum.”
Ban expressed disappointment at the Israeli decision, saying “settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, is illegal under international law.”
He urged Israel to “fulfill its road map obligation to freeze settlement activity.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman met with Ban in New York on Monday and said that for nine months the Palestinians said that the moratorium was a trick, yet now have “turned it into everything.”
It is clear, Lieberman said according to a statement released by his office, that the Palestinians were using this issue as an “excuse.” Lieberman is scheduled to address the UN General Assembly on Tuesday.
Regarding the upcoming meeting of the Arab League, Lieberman told Ban that organization had numerous challenges to deal with in the Arab world, “such as hundreds of people killed each week in terror attacks and clashes between Islamic radical groups and security forces in Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Algeria and Tunisia.
“The poverty and despair in those countries cries out to the heavens,”
Lieberman said, “but instead of solving those problems the heads of the
Arab League prefer to run away from them and blame Israel for all their
internal problems. Instead of conducting a dialogue, they prefer to
incite the masses against the Jews.”
Israel was interested in a “reasonable” peace agreement and was willing
to cooperate with the international community, but “without compromising
on its security and its vital interests,” Lieberman said.
In addition to meeting with Ban, Lieberman met on Monday at the UN with
the foreign ministers of Britain, Greece, Bulgaria, Austria, Nauru,
Cyprus and Lithuania.
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