Mitchell seeks to ease tension over settlements

Envoy emphatically denies accusing Israel of lying to US; Netanyahu has "positive" phone call with Obama.

Netanyahu under pressure 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Netanyahu under pressure 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
US Mideast envoy George Mitchell's first endeavor upon landing in Israel Monday night was to try and lower the volume in the US dispute over settlement construction. Mitchell emphatically denied he had said, as was reported Sunday in the Hebrew press, that the days of Israel lying to the US over settlements were over. On the way from Ben-Gurion Airport to Jerusalem, Mitchell instructed the US Embassy to circulate a statement, also read out Monday at the State Department briefing in Washington, denying quotes attributed to him that indicated a serious lack of good faith between Washington and Jerusalem. US Embassy spokesman Stewart Tuttle said that Mitchell was "shocked and deeply dismayed to read in Ma'ariv that he was alleged to have said, 'The Israelis lied to us all these years. It's over.'" Tuttle said that Mitchell asked him to state that the "quotation is totally false. It is a complete fabrication." Ma'ariv, in a front page story, said the source for the quote was a "prominent Jewish leader" Mitchell met last week in New York. Tuttle said the only private meeting he had that day was with Mort Zuckerman, and that Zuckerman authorized the State Department to issue a statement denying this is what Mitchell had said. "The Ma'ariv article is absolutely false," Tuttle quoted Zuckerman's statement as saying. "I find it outrageous. I have met and talked many times with Senator Mitchell, and he has never made such a statement or anything that could be interpreted in this way. I share his dismay and welcome the opportunity to set the record straight." Mitchell's comments indicate what appears to be a growing sensitivity in the State Department to what it feels are inaccurate quotes by senior US officials that are heating up the atmosphere and exacerbating the tension between the US and Israel over the settlement issue. "Nobody wants an adversarial relationship right now," one official said. In another apparent indication of attempts to change the overall atmosphere, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke Monday with US President Barack Obama, the first time the two have talked since Netanyahu was in Washington last month. A statement issued by the Prime Minister's Office said the conversation was "positive," and dealt with a number of issues, including Netanyahu's speech on Sunday in which he will present the government's diplomatic plan. The statement said that the two men agreed to continue to maintain an "open and continuous" dialogue. Barak - in advance of his meeting with Mitchell - praised Obama for his regional peace initiative. "I am convinced that on the diplomatic front, we need to praise President Obama's initiative for a regional settlement, and this is also the position of the Labor Party," he said at a Labor Party faction meeting on Monday. "We, the government, are committed to all agreements signed by previous governments, including the Road Map, which explicitly affirms a commitment to two states." Barak, who was in Washington last week, said the "deep and strong" foundations for Israel-US relations remained intact despite disagreements on certain issues. On Wednesday, Mitchell will travel to Ramallah for meetings with top Palestinian Authority officials, before returning to Jerusalem to meet with opposition leader Tzipi Livni. The State Department has not released the rest of Mitchell's itinerary, leading to speculation that after leaving Israel he will travel either to Syria, Lebanon or both. If Mitchell goes to Syria, it would be his first trip there since taking up his job in January, although two other senior administration officials have gone there twice in the last three months. Mitchell is not only mandated to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also with the whole regional context, and in previous trips has visited Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the Persian Gulf countries. Obama has made clear that he would like to see the Arab world take steps towards Israel at the beginning of the diplomatic process, something Mitchell is believed to be discussing with the Arab countries. Although the State Department said that Mitchell plans to set up an office in Jerusalem, he is not expected to do so during this trip. Mitchell arrived from Oslo, where he took part in a donors' conference for the Palestinian Authority, called the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee. Reuters quoted Mitchell as saying that the president wanted "immediate" talks to begin between the Palestinians and Israel to forge a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement. "The president has told me to exert all efforts to create the circumstance when the parties can begin immediate discussions," Mitchell told reporters at the start of the conference in the Norwegian capital. He said such talks were aimed at reaching "a comprehensive peace and normalization of relations" between Israel and its neighbors, which would also serve "the security interests of the United States." Mitchell said the purpose of the donors' meeting was to "provide support for the Palestinian Authority" and pave the way for a two-state solution with Israel. "It's important that there is a building of institutions and governmental capacity so that at an early time there can be an independent and viable Palestinian state," Mitchell said. The Palestinian Authority has said it would not renew talks with Israel until the Netanyahu government stopped settlement construction and formally accepted a two-state solution. A senior Israeli government source said that Netanyahu had said from his first day in office that he was ready to begin immediate talks with the Palestinians.