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Israeli diplomatic officials said Monday it was unlikely Tuesday's meeting between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US envoy George Mitchell would lead to any declaration of a US-Israel agreement on the settlement issue, but rather to a further "narrowing of the gaps" that might enable the relaunching of diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians.
The officials stressed, however, that whether or not Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and US President Barack Obama met on the sidelines of next week's UN General Assembly was not up to Israel, since Jerusalem had already said it was willing to start talks immediately. Rather, the officials said, the PA would have to decide whether it would come to the negotiating table even though Israel would not agree to a total settlement freeze.
The Prime Minister's Office issued a statement Monday night saying "a meeting has not yet been set to launch the diplomatic process."
Netanyahu is currently scheduled to travel to New York next Wednesday, speak to the General Assembly on Thursday and return Friday before Shabbat. The statement said the PMO was prepared for all eventualities, including the possibility of going to New York earlier, in the event that a meeting was set.
One Israeli diplomatic official said the search was still on for a framework that would enable the restarting of talks. The official made clear that complete agreement on all issues was neither expected nor necessary, and said that what was needed for the meeting to take place was "enough common ground."
Mitchell, following his talks with Netanyahu, is scheduled to meet directly with Abbas and continue trying to forge that common ground. Abbas has until now been adamant that he would not reenter negotiations until there was a total settlement freeze.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday that there would be no absolute freeze, since the building already underway in the settlements - some 2,500 units - would continue, and Israel would keep on building public structures such as schools, health clinics, kindergartens and synagogues to enable normal life in the settlements to continue.
In addition, the government last week approved the construction of 455 new units, all but 20 of them in the large settlement blocs.
Beyond that, Netanyahu said, there would be a moratorium on new private construction, but that would not be permanent.
"A reduction on building in Judea and Samaria will only be for a limited period," he said. "There is still no agreement with the Americans on the period of the freeze."
A day after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, who urged a halt to all settlement construction, Netanyahu said, "The Palestinians expected a complete settlement freeze, and now it's clear that this won't happen."
"We're balancing both the desire to make a gesture, in order to relaunch the peace process, and the need to let Judea and Samaria residents live a normal life, and also to continue building public structures," he said.
Netanyahu said the US had also originally requested that Israel completely stop all building in the West Bank, but that he had agreed instead to "reduce the scope of the building."
He said Israel would not "grab" any empty hills adjacent to settlements, but at the same time would not agree to end the construction of public structures where necessary.
Netanyahu also emphasized that any settlement construction moratorium would not include east Jerusalem, adding that "Jerusalem is not a settlement and construction will continue as usual."
Netanyahu said to the committee that expectations that Israel would move forward, or make concessions, in a vacuum were unrealistic and that what was being discussed was a "package," with all sides expected to give something. Israel is expecting normalization gestures from the Arab world, and has made clear that the more significant those gestures, the more flexibility Israel could show on the settlement issue.
Netanyahu's meeting with Mitchell, originally scheduled for early Monday afternoon, was postponed to early Tuesday morning so that both men could attend the funeral of Capt. Assaf Ramon. A US embassy spokesman said Mitchell wanted to attend the funeral to express solidarity with the family and with Israel.
Rebecca Anna Stoil contributed to this report.