US Middle East envoy George Mitchell arrived in Israel on Tuesday for three days of talks, amid reports that the US would like to see Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu extend the 10-month settlement freeze in exchange for a Palestinian Authority agreement to enter into direct talks.
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Mitchell’s arrival comes a week before a meeting in the White House between Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama, in which the issue of settlement construction after the moratorium expires on September 26 is expected to be discussed.
Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office would not say whether Netanyahu would be bringing any new ideas on this matter to the White House, with one official saying that Netanyahu had said consistently in recent weeks that “the cabinet decision on the moratorium was for 10 months.”
Netanyahu convened a meeting on Tuesday night of his inner cabinet, a forum known as the septet, to discuss the Mitchell visit and the prime minister’s upcoming trip to Washington. There are various opinions on the settlement moratorium inside the septet, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman opposed to any extension, and Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor having spoken in recent weeks about the possibility of resuming construction in settlements inside the West Bank security barrier, but not to the east of it.
Mitchell is expected to meet with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Netanyahu on Wednesday, as well as with PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. He is scheduled to meet with PA President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday, and to leave the next morning.
Just before Mitchell’s arrival, Lieberman – following a meeting with visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – said that “as an optimistic person, I don’t think there is any chance that a Palestinian state will be established by 2012. It is possible to imagine, it is possible to dream, but the reality on the ground is that we are still very far from reaching an agreement.”Lavrov visits Abbas in Ramallah
Later in the day, Lavrov went to Ramallah and, after a meeting with Abbas, said that reaching a peace agreement by 2010 was a “realistic objective.”
“If everyone shows goodwill and mutual trust, if all international negotiators actively push the sides toward reconciliation, this goal is quite realistic,” Lavrov was quoted as saying after meeting with Abbas.
Lavrov, meanwhile, defended during his press conference with Lieberman his country’s continued contacts with Hamas, saying Moscow is convinced it is doing the right thing by engaging with Hamas since it won free elections in the PA in 2006.
He said, however, that in their talks, Moscow was trying to convince Hamas to “get closer to the positions of Fatah,” enter a diplomatic process and back the Arab peace initiative. He said it would be impossible to move forward any positive economic development in Gaza at the present time without contact with Hamas.
Lieberman acknowledged that the issue of Russia’s talks with Hamas was one of the disagreements Jerusalem has with Moscow, and the issue reportedly came up in the private talks the two men held. But, he said, the wise thing to do is to carry on “with an honest dialogue, even on the issues you don’t agree with.”
Lieberman issued a harshly worded statement last month after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met with Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal in Damascus. In that statement he compared Hamas to Chechen terrorists and said it was impossible to “separate terrorists into good ones and bad ones based on their geographic location.”
While Lieberman, with his comment about not reaching an agreement with the Palestinians by 2012, expressed pessimism about the diplomatic process, Lavrov said there was a need to prod ahead in order to marginalize extremists. He said there was a need to enhance the Quartet’s role, and praised a recent Quartet decision to create a committee that would not only include the regular representatives from the US, EU, Russia and UN, but also some from the Arab League.
Regarding Iran, Lavrov sidestepped giving a direct answer when asked by
The Jerusalem Post whether the recent fourth set of UN Security Council
sanctions against Iran, which Moscow supported, precluded Russia from
providing Teheran with the state-of-the-art S-300 anti-missile systems
that both Israel and the US are concerned would make any strike on
Iran’s nuclear facilities that much more difficult.
While saying that Russia was always careful to abide by UN Security
Council resolutions, he said that “in practice, such resolutions are
implemented through decrees issued by the president of the Russian
Lavrov said that such a declaration would be made soon and “will make it
absolutely clear which types of weapons fall under the recently adopted
The issue of Russian arms sales in the region came up as well during
Lavrov’s meeting with President Shimon Peres, who said that he
remembered and appreciated Lavrov’s statement in Syria in 2008, when he
said that Russia would not sell any arms to the Middle East that would
tip the regional balance. “I was encouraged to hear in our meeting today
that this principle remains today just as did then,” Peres said.
Lavrov replied by saying that Russia was committed to all the
international laws and standards regarding weapons sales.
“We have tight supervision on our exports, and we know what could happen
when the military balance is tipped,” he said. “We will continue not to
tip the balance in selling ammunition, and will continue to abide by