U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell on Monday pressed Israel to start "dealing" with its West Bank settlements as a step toward bringing a comprehensive peace to the Middle East.
Mitchell, making a new swing through the region, has been pushing Arab and Israeli officials to take steps that can help bring about a region-wide peace between the Arab world and the Jewish state.
As part of those efforts, the U.S. has called on Israel to halt construction of homes in settlements built on captured land claimed by the Palestinians. It is also demanding that Israel remove some two dozen tiny settlement outposts in the West Bank.
Mitchell pressed this message further during a meeting with Israel's ceremonial president, Shimon Peres, telling his host that Israel could improve the climate by "dealing with difficult issues like settlements and outposts."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected an absolute construction freeze, saying existing settlements must be allowed to expand to accommodate "natural growth" in their populations.
Is a compromise near?
Israeli media have reported that the sides are near a compromise that would permit Israel to finish housing projects that are near completion, but refrain from launching any new construction. Netanyahu's office refused to comment on the reports. Mitchell was scheduled to meet with Netanyahu on Tuesday morning.
In a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his Ramallah headquarters Monday evening, however, Mitchell said the U.S. demand for an Israeli settlement freeze remains unchanged, according to Palestinian official Saeb Erekat, who took part.
"Mitchell told Abbas that contrary to what has been said in the mass media, there is no agreement with the Israeli side on anything," Erekat told reporters.
Another Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to divulge Mitchell's comments to Palestinian leaders, said the U.S. envoy reported that while there had been some progress in his talks with the Israelis on the issue, gaps remain.
The Palestinians, encouraged by the tough U.S. stance, have so far refused to meet with Netanyahu, demanding that he freeze all settlement activity.
In a statement to reporters after meeting Abbas, Mitchell made no mention of settlements, saying only that in order to move Middle East peace efforts forward all parties "must take steps; some of them difficult, some of them controversial."
Abbas did not speak to the media.
The number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank has grown to more than 300,000 people, an Israeli newspaper reported Monday, reflecting the challenge the U.S. faces as it presses Israel to stop building new homes in its settlements. An additional 180,000 Israelis live in Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians claim the West Bank and east Jerusalem — both captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — as parts of a future state. Netanyahu has endorsed the idea of Palestinian independence, but not said which territories he is willing to cede.
The U.S. believes a settlement freeze would go a long way toward improving the negotiating climate. Mitchell, who arrived in Israel from Cairo, said he has been urging Arab nations to make "meaningful steps" toward normalizing ties with Israel.
In Egypt, Mitchell said he plans to meet other Arab leaders "to encourage them to take genuine steps toward normalization" of ties with Israel. He also asked Palestinians to "refrain" from "words or actions that might make meaningful and productive negotiations impossible."
After meeting with Mitchell in Cairo, Arab League chief Amr Moussa said Arab states would not take steps toward normalization "before Israel stops its policy of settlement building."
Mitchell's swing through the region has also included a stop in Syria. He also plans to visit the Gulf state of Bahrain.
The Mitchell visit is part of a wider diplomatic push this week by the U.S. Early Monday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Israel to discuss international efforts to halt Iran's nuclear program. The White House's national security adviser, James Jones, and envoy Dennis Ross are also expected this week.