LONDON (AP) – Israel and the U.S. are making headway in defusing an unusually public disagreement over West Bank settlements, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said as he met a top American envoy in London on Wednesday.
Netanyahu has said ahead of his meeting with U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell that he wants an agreement that allows Israel to proceed with some settlement construction while at the same time restarting peace talks with the Palestinians. In the past week, both Israel and the U.S. have been signaling that an agreement could be within reach.
Speaking alongside Mitchell before the meeting, Netanyahu said he hoped peace negotiations would resume “shortly.”
“We are making headway. My government has taken steps in both words and deeds to move forward,” he said. But in the days preceding Wednesday’s meeting, the key encounter of the Israeli leader’s four-day London trip, he also made clear he sees the spotlight on settlements as unfair and insisted the Mideast conflict is rooted in a deep Arab enmity toward Israel that predates them.
Netanyahu’s made those remarks in a briefing to reporters after a meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Tuesday. The subject of settlements is also sure to be raised at his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday.
The steadily growing settlements in the West Bank, which the Palestinians want for a future state, are home to 300,000 Israelis, making an Israeli withdrawal more difficult. The territory is home to some 2.5 million Palestinians.
A poll released Wednesday in Israel showed freezing settlements would be an unpopular move. Almost two-thirds of those questioned told pollsters they opposed a freeze, even in return for moves by Arab countries toward normalization of ties with Israel. Thirty-nine percent said they would support a freeze in return for Arab gestures. Conducted by the Maagar Mohot polling company, the survey questioned 506 Jewish Israelis and had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
The issue has come to overshadow Israel’s ties with the U.S and much of the international community since March, when Netanyahu took power with a hardline government and President Barack Obama indicated that years of reluctant U.S. tolerance for settlement construction had ended.
Netanyahu’s aides have been dropping optimistic hints in recent days, saying a compromise with the U.S. is growing closer and that peace talks could resume within two months, even floating the idea of a meeting between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the U.N. General Assembly in New York next month. U.S. officials have also suggested an agreement could be close.
Abbas has so far refused to renew peace talks, suspended since former Israeli leader Ehud Olmert left office in March, before the Israelis stop building in the West Bank.
Netanyahu said Tuesday he was trying to hammer out an agreement with the U.S. Israeli officials have said one possible compromise could see the U.S. approve the completion of some 2,500 housing units now under construction while freezing all other plans.
“What we’re seeking to achieve with the United States in the talks we’ve conducted, and will conduct tomorrow and will conduct after tomorrow, is to find a bridging formula that will enable us to at once launch a process but enable those residents to continue living normal lives,” Netanyahu said, referring to Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
“Normal life” is the phrase Israeli representatives have been using to refer to construction that allows for the growth of settler families.
Though Netanyahu is pursuing, or being pushed into, some form of settlement compromise, he told reporters traveling with him that he sees the focus on settlements as wrong. “The settlements have been turned into the root of the conflict, and that simply isn’t the case,” Netanyahu told reporters. Instead, he said, the conflict was rooted in what he sees as an unwillingness on the part of the Palestinians to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. He said he had raised the point with Brown and would do so at his meetings with Mitchell and Merkel.