Image: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Ian Nicholson  /  EPA
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a press conference with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London on Tuesday.
updated 8/25/2009 2:05:47 PM ET 2009-08-25T18:05:47

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he will seek a compromise in talks with the United States that would allow Israel to proceed with some settlement construction while restarting peace talks with the Palestinians.

Israel's leader began a four-day European tour on Tuesday with a meeting with his British counterpart, Gordon Brown, as his country faces intense international criticism of its settlement policy in the West Bank.

Netanyahu is trying to balance the demands of his right-leaning ruling coalition against an international front opposed to Israeli settlements.

Netanyahu has rebuffed pressure from the U.S. and the international community to freeze settlements to allow peace talks to proceed. The Palestinians have said they will not resume talks until the Israelis agree to a settlement freeze.

Speaking after talks with Brown, Netanyahu said Israel was working toward such an arrangement, which would defuse criticism of Israel for constructing Jewish homes on captured land that Palestinians want for a future state.

He said he would discuss his ideas with U.S. envoy George Mitchell on Wednesday.

‘Bridging formula’
"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."

Both Israel and the U.S. signaled Monday that they have made progress toward a compromise.

But Netanyahu's partners in an unruly governing coalition are pulling him in the opposite direction. Crossing them could unravel his hold on power.

In recent weeks, some of Netanyahu's allies have done their best to nudge him rightward. A group of Cabinet ministers paid a supportive visit to an unauthorized settlement outpost in the West Bank — even though Netanyahu has promised to remove such wildcat settlements — and called on the prime minister to ignore President Barack Obama's call to halt all settlement construction.

Brown said he made clear in talks with Netanyahu that settlement activity was a barrier to Mideast peace.

"I am increasingly confident, however, that there is a genuine will to make progress, that a freeze in such activity would result in meaningful steps toward normalization from Arab states."

Netanyahu spokesman Nir Hefetz said there was no expectation that the settlement issue would be resolved at Wednesday's meeting with Mitchell, perhaps the most important of Netanyahu's meetings this week. But Hefetz told reporters traveling with the prime minister that there was likely to be "certain progress."

‘Getting closer’
That was echoed Monday in Washington by State Department spokesman Ian Kelly, who said the sides were "getting closer" to a deal.

Israeli-Palestinian talks have been on hold since Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, left office in March. The Palestinians say they will not resume talks before the Israelis freeze settlement construction. Hefetz said Israel's government believed talks could be resumed within two months.

Israeli government officials say a compromise being discussed could see Israel freeze building except for 2,500 homes currently under construction. They spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the talks between Israel and the U.S. are secret.

The number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank — home to some 2.5 million Palestinians — has more than doubled since the mid-1990s and now stands at around 300,000.

Netanyahu has shown some willingness to compromise since taking office, after winning an election on a hard-line platform.

He endorsed the formation of a Palestinian state, a major reversal after years of opposing the idea, albeit with several conditions. And last week, Netanyahu's housing minister said Israel had temporarily stopped approving new building projects in the West Bank.

Obama called the move encouraging — an indication, perhaps, that the sides are getting close to a compromise.

But the halt in approvals for new building was seen by Netanyahu's critics as little more than a maneuver. The settlement watchdog group Peace Now said Sunday that there had been no real slowdown in construction and that settlers could keep building indefinitely, using plans that have already been approved.

Netanyahu has also taken steps to improve life for Palestinians in the West Bank. With the territory enjoying a period of calm, some Israeli military checkpoints have been lifted, permits for importing raw materials are being granted, and there are other signs that life there is assuming a semblance of normalcy.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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