Netanyahu mitchell firm handshake 248.88.
(photo credit: GPO)
In yet another push for Middle East peace, US Mideast envoy George Mitchell met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem early Friday afternoon.
Netanyahu began the meeting by expressing his appreciation for US President Barack Obama's "ongoing efforts to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear military capability," referring to the latest UN initiative to curb Iran's nuclear pursuit.
The prime minister called the draft plan to transfer a significant portion of Iran's low-enriched uranium out of the country "a positive first step" toward a possible solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis - a cessation of Teheran's uranium enrichment.
"I support and appreciate the president's ongoing effort to unite the international community to address the challenge of Iran's attempts to become a nuclear military power," he said.
The plan calls for Iran to export most of its enriched uranium, offering instead to enrich it to a higher level outside the country under UN supervision.
The proposal was meant not only to assist Iran in powering a small medical research reactor in Teheran, but also to build trust between the negotiating parties by ensuring that the exported material would not be enriched beyond the grade needed for peaceful nuclear development, and also that the country's remaining uranium stockpile would not be sufficient to build a nuclear weapon.
Teheran had at first hinted that it would accept the proposal, but European diplomats and US officials were quoted by the New York Times on Thursday night as saying that Teheran had informed the UN that it had rejected the plan.
Mitchell and Netanyahu also discussed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, both expressing hope for fruitful negotiations which would lead to calm in the region.
"As always, I look forward to our discussions to achieve our common objective of a comprehensive peace," said Mitchell at the start of his meeting with the prime minister.
The meeting came amid low expectations in Israel of progress and concern that the Palestinian Authority election campaign would make launching negotiations even more difficult than before as rival factions Hamas and Fatah begin to court the popular vote.
Following the meeting, Mitchell left for Abu Dhabi, where US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was slated to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Mitchell will return to Israel for follow-up talks on Sunday.
"I look forward to our discussions, and the discussions with â€¦ Clinton, to try to re-launch the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians as soon as possible," Netanyahu said on Friday.
Clinton is expected to arrive in Israel for talks on Saturday night. US State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly rejected the notion that Clinton was being dispatched to play backstop for a faltering Mitchell.
"It's absolutely no reflection on Senator Mitchell and the amount of effort that he's put into this. He's done an outstanding job, tireless efforts to try and bring the two sides together," Kelly stressed.
"We knew going in that this was going to be challenging and would require a real deep commitment to intensive negotiations. And that's exactly what we're involved in right now," he said.
Senior Israeli officials said that it was not clear whether Abbas was interested in negotiations at this time, believing that in the atmosphere created by the Goldstone Commission Report if he holds out and waits, then the US and the international community would pressure Israel.
"Abbas believes that by waiting he can improve his starting position," one official said, saying that the sides continue to wrangle over the terms of reference for the talks - what the aim of the negotiations will be, how long they will continue, and what issues will be discussed.
There is a school of thought in Jerusalem that maintains that Abbas's electoral position will improve the more he is seen as not giving in to Israeli and US dictates. He has called Palestinian presidential and legislative elections for January, but there is a sense in Jerusalem that these will not actually take place until the summer.
The US, after first calling for a total settlement freeze, has since backtracked a bit on that position and is now calling for the Palestinians to restart talks without any conditions.
Abbas has stood firm by his demand that Israel freeze building in all settlements, as well as in Jerusalem, before negotiations start.
Netanyahu has agreed to a temporary moratorium on new housing starts, but said this does not include Jerusalem and that some 3,000 units already in the pipeline will continue to be built.
Israeli government officials say that Israel has reached agreement on this issue with the Americans, but that the Palestinians have not given their consent.
Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.