PM: J'lem, US working on settlement deal

Netanyahu-Mitchell meeting postponed; Berlusconi meets premier in Rome, says PA state necessary.

Netanyahu Berlusconi  248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Netanyahu Berlusconi 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Israel and the US are continuing to negotiate the parameters of a settlement construction freeze, diplomatic officials said Tuesday, soon after it was announced that a scheduled meeting Thursday in Paris between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US Middle East envoy George Mitchell to discuss the matter had been postponed. In lieu of a Netanyahu-Mitchell meeting, Defense Minister Ehud Barak will travel to the US early next week in an effort to consolidate all the construction data and pave the way for a further meeting between Netanyahu and Mitchell. This will be Barak's second visit to the US this month. Netanyahu, currently on a three-day trip to Europe, said that despite the US call for a complete settlement freeze, there were attempts to reach an agreement with Washington on the issue. According to diplomatic officials, the meeting with Mitchell was canceled because both sides needed more time to prepare. While the US is demanding a complete settlement-building halt, Netanyahu has said it is unreasonable to expect that Israel would completely stop all settlement construction. He repeated that assessment Tuesday during a briefing with Israeli reporters in Rome, where he was met by a public call from both Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi - who Netanyahu said was a true friend of Israel - and Foreign Minister Franco Frattini for a moratorium on settlement construction. "I repeated to Berlusconi what I say everywhere," Netanyahu said after his meeting with the Italian premier. "We will not build new settlements, we will not expropriate land to expand settlements, and we accept the principle that the discussions about the settlements will take place in final-status negotiations." But at the same time, he said, "we don't want them to forbid us to carry on with normal life in the settlements in Judea and Samaria." Netanyahu said in an interview broadcast Tuesday on Italy's RAI television network that the fate of the settlements would be determined in final-status negotiations with the Palestinians. But, he said, "pending a final peace agreement, the people who are there [in the settlements] will be allowed to live a normal life. They have children, they need kindergartens, they need health clinics and so on. This is, I think, an equitable position which reflects our willingness to enter immediately into peace negotiations and get on with peace. I think that the more we spend time arguing about this, the more we waste time instead of moving toward peace." Netanyahu emerged upbeat from his nearly two-hour meeting with Berlusconi, saying that the Italian leader had accepted the conditions the Israeli leader had laid out in his speech at Bar-Ilan University for any final-status agreement: that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and that a future Palestinian state be demilitarized. In his briefing with reporters afterward, Netanyahu said he viewed Berlusconi's acceptance of these principles as significant and that he would continue to try and convince other leaders in Europe to accept them as well. Netanyahu will go from Rome to Paris Wednesday for a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Later this summer he is also expected to visit Germany and Britain. "To the extent that we remain firm behind these two principles, I think they will be accepted," Netanyahu said. He denied that the principles were "obstacles" to peace, or that they represented "tricks" or "maneuvers," saying he believed they would eventually be accepted as fundamentals to a peace agreement. "These are necessary conditions in my mind, and also for most Israeli citizens," he said. Netanyahu said he was not setting preconditions for starting negotiations, but that acceptance of these principles would be necessary for the negotiations with the Palestinians to progress. He dismissed the idea that the two sides should immediately begin talking about border issues, saying that this could only take place after the Palestinians accepted the two principles. Berlusconi also endorsed Netanyahu's ideas about the need for economic development, and said that at the G-8 meeting he is hosting next month, he would raise the idea of a Marshall Plan for the West Bank that would concentrate on economic development. Berlusconi said that one focus of the economic development should be tourism, with the goal of bringing four million tourists to the area each year. Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said the two leaders had decided to establish a joint Italian-Israeli committee to deal with these ideas. They also decided that to encourage bilateral ties, Netanyahu and Berlusconi would hold a joint meeting of their respective cabinets, as was done last year when German Chancellor Angela Merkel brought most of her cabinet to Israel for a working visit. Israeli officials said that during the discussion in Rome, their Italian counterparts had told them that certain countries inside Europe wanted to prevent the upgrading of the EU's relationship with Israel, but that since such a decision needed to be taken by a consensus of all 27 EU states, Italy would never let that happen.