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U.S., Israel at odds over Palestinians

Differences between U.S. and Israeli policy toward Palestinian peace talks emerged on Thursday in meetings between President Obama's Mideast envoy and Israeli leaders.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Stark differences between U.S. and Israeli policy toward peace talks with the Palestinians emerged clearly Thursday in the first meetings between President Barack Obama's Mideast envoy and top leaders of the new Israeli government.

The envoy, George Mitchell, emphasized that Washington is aiming for creation of a Palestinian state. But Israelis avoided mention of Palestinian statehood, and the new foreign minister said past Israeli concessions have led to violence, not peace.

Mitchell met Thursday evening with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. An official in Netanyahu's office said the Israeli leader expressed misgivings about creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank because of concern that the militant Hamas group could take it over, as it overran Gaza in 2007.

The official said the experience of Israel's withdrawing from territory only to have it controlled by Palestinian extremists "is not going to be repeated."

Netanyahu also demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a step they have refused to take, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were not public.

Mitchell used the term "Jewish state of Israel" twice in public statements Thursday.

Netanyahu has yet to unveil his policy on peace efforts but has spoken of shifting the emphasis to stimulating the Palestinian economy instead of supporting the process accepted by the U.S. and Israel up to now — direct negotiations toward a full peace treaty between two states.

U.S. favors two states
Mitchell made the administration's goals clear to reporters while standing next to Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, after their meeting.

"U.S. policy favors ... a two-state solution, which would have a Palestinian state living in peace alongside the Jewish state of Israel," Mitchell said.

In a statement, Lieberman questioned the basic premise that compromises by both sides would eventually lead to a peace accord.

"The historic approach has so far not brought any result or solution," a statement from Lieberman's office said. "The minister also said that the new government will have to come up with new ideas and a new approach."

Lieberman reinforced his public position that a year of apparently fruitless peace negotiations, which began after a U.S.-sponsored conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in November 2007 under the previous government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, were misdirected. Livni ran against Netanyahu in Israel's February 10 election.

Olmert has said he offered the Palestinians all of Gaza, almost all of the West Bank, parts of Jerusalem, an exchange of territory and a corridor through Israel between the West Bank and Gaza, but the Palestinians turned it down.

"Past prime ministers were prepared to make wide-ranging concessions, and the result of the Olmert-Livni government was the second Lebanon war, the operation in Gaza, severance of relations with Qatar and Mauritania, Gilad Schalit still in captivity and the peace process at a dead end," Lieberman's statement said. Schalit is an Israeli soldier held by Hamas-linked militants in Gaza for nearly three years.

U.S. envoy to meet with Abbas
In response, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said it means Israel will not conduct peace talks. "It's very obvious that this government rejects a two-state solution and the agreements (already) signed," he told The Associated Press by telephone.

Mitchell meets Friday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose government controls only the West Bank.

Also Thursday, Mitchell met President Shimon Peres, who tried to ease concerns that Israel might attack Iran's nuclear facilities if international pressure fails to stop development of nuclear weapons that could threaten Israel.

"Talk of a possible Israeli attack on Iran is not true," Peres told Mitchell. "The solution to Iran is not military."

Israel sees a nuclear Iran as the most serious threat to its existence. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called for Israel's destruction and Tehran has tested long-range missiles that could strike Israel.

While not directly threatening to take out Iran's nuclear facilities, Israel has kept the military option open.

Peres, a Nobel peace laureate and former leader of the dovish Labor Party, has a largely ceremonial role in Israeli public life. Strategic decisions are made by Netanyahu and his government.

Promising a vigorous push for Israel-Palestinian peace, Mitchell made his first Mideast trip in January, just a week after Obama took office. A month later he accompanied U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the region.

In violence Thursday, Israeli aircraft hit a building in northern Gaza. The military said it was booby-trapped with explosives. Palestinians said no one was hurt.