JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday rejected U.S. calls to freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, angering Palestinians and putting a New York summit in question.
Netanyahu's announcement came on the eve of a crucial meeting with President Barack Obama's Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, who is trying to arrange an Israeli-Palestinian summit on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session next week.
A tough line from both Israel and the Palestinians, combined with a Saudi refusal to make new conciliatory gestures to the Jewish state, also could further complicate U.S. efforts to forge a comprehensive regional peace.
Seeking to jump-start peace efforts, Mitchell has been pressing Israel to halt its construction of homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Settlements at issue
The Palestinians claim both areas, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, and say the settlements make it increasingly difficult for them to realize their goal of establishing an independent state.
Netanyahu told parliament's powerful foreign affairs and defense committee on Monday that Israel would consider suspending new plans to build in the West Bank for a limited time only, according to a meeting participant.
Netanyahu said Israel will continue to build some 3,000 apartments already begun, trying to strike a balance between Israel's desire to resume talks with the Palestinians while also enabling "normal life" to continue in the settlements.
He also said Israel would continue to build without restrictions in east Jerusalem, which Israel considers part of its capital.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.
Netanyahu has repeatedly voiced these positions, but delivering the message a day ahead of an important meeting with Mitchell gave them an added note of defiance.
Trying to prevent uprising
Netanyahu hopes his offer of a settlement slowdown will be enough for the Americans. He has argued that an absolute freeze would spark an uprising in his hard-line coalition, which includes settler advocates, making it impossible to conduct peace talks with the Palestinians.
Whether these arguments will sway Mitchell remained unclear. Mitchell is trying to bridge the differences on this visit to set the stage for a summit next week between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, possibly with Obama joining. All will be in New York for the U.N. General Assembly.
Abbas has left the door open to a meeting next week, but insists he will not reopen peace talks until Israel halts all settlement construction. The latest round of peace talks broke down before Netanyahu took office in March,
Sabri Seidam, an Abbas aide, said the Palestinian position remains unchanged.
"Israel has to stop stalling and focus on creating the atmosphere for a resumption of the peace process. Its sole track should lead to the establishment of the Palestinian state," Seidam told The Associated Press.
Mitchell had been set to meet Netanyahu on Monday. But their talks were delayed for a day so both could attend the funeral of an Israeli air force pilot killed in a training accident. The pilot, Capt. Asaf Ramon, was the son of Israel's first and only astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died in the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster.
‘Blind eye to immorality’
Mitchell is also set to meet Abbas on Tuesday. If he can achieve a compromise, a summit next week would mark the first face-to-face encounter between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders since Netanyahu took office.
The U.S. has also tried to link renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks to work toward a comprehensive peace deal between Israel and the entire Arab world. Israeli officials have said the extent of any settlement freeze would depend on whether the Arab world reciprocates with some sort of conciliatory gesture.
Saudi Arabia has rebuffed the effort and indicated it has no intention of making the first move.
Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi ambassador to the U.S., wrote in a strongly worded opinion piece in the New York Times on Saturday that diplomatic normalization with Israel before it returns occupied Arab land would undermine "international law and turn a blind eye to immorality."
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