JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – U.S. envoy George Mitchell told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday Washington was committed to Israel’s security and wanted a peace settlement that would give the Palestinians a state.
“That has been American policy. That is American policy. That will be American policy,” Mitchell told Netanyahu, repeating President Barack Obama’s pledge of strong and enduring ties to Israel on its 62nd anniversary earlier this week.
Netanyahu and Obama have been sharply at odds over Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, land Palestinians want for their state. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refuses to resume talks suspended in December 2008 until settlement stops.
Netanyahu is trying to bridge a damaging split with his country’s closest ally, but without yielding ground to the United States or the Palestinians that could destroy his pro-settler ruling coalition government. He told Mitchell: “I look forward to working with you and with President Obama to advance peace. We’re serious about it. We know you’re serious about it. We hope the Palestinians respond — we have to move this process forward.”
Mitchell has visited the region a dozen times in the past year without managing to revive talks stalled for 16 months over Israel’s refusal to meet the Palestinian demand for a settlement freeze that it considers an unacceptable precondition.
Speaking ahead of his latest mission, a U.S. State Department spokesman on Thursday said: “We don’t go to meet just to meet. We go there because we have some indication that both sides are willing to engage seriously on the issues.”
Netanyahu and Mitchell met for about two hours. Without revealing substantive details, Netanyahu’s spokesman said: “The meeting was a good one.” Further talks would be held on Sunday.
Mitchell was due to meet Palestinian leader Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, north of Jerusalem, in the early evening. He began his mission by meeting Defence Minister Ehud Barak, leader of the centre-left Labour Party, who on Monday sounded a public alarm over the state of Israel’s ties with Washington, saying the coalition “must act to change things”.
As Mitchell flew in on Thursday, one European diplomat said: “I think we’re all now very focused on seeing what the Americans may come up with.” He added: “They’re the ones who may be able to move things along, though it’s not clear how.” “Netanyahu clearly has to balance maintaining his coalition with his relationship with the Americans,” the diplomat said.
Netanyahu reiterated on Thursday that he would not freeze settlement building in East Jerusalem, land Israel captured in 1967 and annexed as part of its capital in a move not recognised internationally.
“Our policy in Jerusalem will not change,” he told Israel’s Channel Two television. “There won’t be a freeze in Jerusalem … Why do I need to give up on Jerusalem?”
A senior Israeli official played down a newspaper report that Netanyahu had proposed agreeing to Palestinian statehood with temporary borders in order to sidestep deadlock over Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Abbas has rejected past Israeli suggestions for a state with provisional borders, but the left-wing daily Haaretz said Netanyahu was floating an interim deal to entice him back to the negotiating table, as Obama is urging.