Mitchell meets with Netanyahu

CONCESSIONS SOUGHT: The former US senator was also scheduled to meet Mahmoud Abbas yesterday before holding more talks with Israel’s leader today


Wed, Sep 16, 2009 - Page 6

Washington’s special Middle East envoy launched a last-ditch push yesterday to wring an Israeli promise to curtail settlement construction and persuade the Palestinians to attend a high-profile US meeting meant as a prelude to peacemaking.

George Mitchell’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be crucial to US President Barack Obama’s credibility in the Arab world and as a Middle East peace broker. If Mitchell fails to wrest significant concessions from Netanyahu, the Arab world is likely to become skeptical of Obama and the unprecedented pressure he has put on Israel to halt settlement expansion.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly said he would not resume official talks with Israel unless settlement construction comes to a total halt. Aides have said, however, that he might agree to an informal sit down with Netanyahu next week on the sidelines of a UN meeting in New York.

Mitchell met first with Netanyahu yesterday, a day after the Israeli leader rejected US calls for a settlement freeze. He said plans to build nearly 3,000 new apartments in the West Bank will remain on course and there will be no restrictions on expanding Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, Netanyahu said.

Palestinians claim both areas for a future state that would also include the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu reiterated his willingness to suspend for a limited time any other new construction in the West Bank, hoping that would be enough of an overture for the US and the Palestinians. But that tradeoff hasn’t elicited much enthusiasm in either quarter.

As they entered their meeting, Mitchell expressed hope of bringing “this phase of our discussions to early conclusion” and to “move forward in our common search for comprehensive peace in the region.”

After the meeting, which lasted more than two hours, Netanyahu’s office put out a pager statement saying the talks were “good” and that the two men would hold an unscheduled second session this morning.

Mitchell hopes in his meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas to bridge the differences and set the stage for the first encounter between the Palestinian and Israeli leaders since Netanyahu took office in March.

Both leaders will be in New York next week for the start of the US General Assembly, and there has been speculation that Obama would join an Abbas-Netanyahu meeting.

Israeli officials said yesterday that Israeli President Shimon Peres met clandestinely with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in Jerusalem last week to try to pressure the Palestinians to meet with Netanyahu. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the visit had been secret.