Mitchell makes last push on settlements

US special ME envoy meets with Netanyahu amid speculation that declaration is imminent.

mitchell and netanyahu 248.88 (photo credit: )
mitchell and netanyahu 248.88
(photo credit: )
Washington's special Mideast envoy launched a last-ditch push Tuesday to wring an Israeli promise to curtail settlement construction and persuade the Palestinians to attend a high-profile US meeting meant as a prelude to peacemaking. George Mitchell's meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu came a day after the Israeli leader rejected US calls for a settlement freeze. Netanyahu had said plans to build nearly 3,000 new apartments in the West Bank would remain on course and that there would be no restrictions on expanding Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem. Netanyahu reiterated his willingness to suspend for a limited time any other new construction in the West Bank, hoping that would be enough of an overture for the Americans and the Palestinians. But that trade-off hasn't elicited much enthusiasm in either quarter. As they entered their meeting, Mitchell expressed hope of bringing "this phase of our discussions to early conclusion" and to "move forward in our common search for comprehensive peace in the region." Mitchell said he hoped in his meetings with Netanyahu, and later Tuesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, to bridge the differences and set the stage for the first encounter between the Palestinian and Israeli leaders since Netanyahu took office in March. On Monday, Israeli diplomatic officials had said that it was unlikely that Tuesday's meeting 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, 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." Also Tuesday, Israeli officials said that President Shimon Peres met clandestinely with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in Jerusalem last week to try to pressure the Palestinians to meet with Netanyahu. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the visit had been secret.