Can Mitchell, now in Israel, calm settlement dispute?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's administration is pushing back against increased US pressure to halt the growth of Jewish communities in the West Bank.
US special envoy George Mitchell arrived here Tuesday, poised to fast-forward President Barack Obama's plan for change in the Middle East. But due to Israeli resistance to a key facet of that plan – freezing West Bank settlement growth – Mr. Mitchell's trip is looking likely to be a diplomatic marathon, requiring the patient persistence he cultivated in Northern Ireland.Skip to next paragraph
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Adding to the controversy, Mr. Netanyahu's interior minister, Eli Yishai, has vowed to reverse official "discrimination" against the 120-odd settlements and to allocate his ministry's reserve funds to their benefit, according a Monday report in the Haaretz newspaper.
"[Mr. Yishai] will do everything he can do to help the growth of communities in Judea and Samaria," says Roei Lachmanovich, Yishai's adviser, using the biblical names for part of the West Bank. Mr. Lachmanovich confirmed the Haaretz report as accurate.
All of this is occurs against the backdrop of increasing tensions between Washington and Jerusalem, most notably on the settlement issue. Mr. Obama bypassed Israel on his recent trip to Cairo, where he declared in a major speech to the Muslim world that the US could not accept the "legitimacy" of continued Israeli settlements – a point underscored repeatedly over the past two weeks by other administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Netanyahu has promised to respond to Obama's Cairo speech in a major address of his own this Sunday. [Editor's note: The original version misrepresented Obama's view on existing settlements.]
Mitchell, in Jerusalem on Tuesday, sought to assuage Israeli concerns that the firmer stance of this administration on certain issues signaled a deterioration of ties.
"Let me be clear. These are not disagreements among adversaries. The United States and Israel are and will remain close allies and friends," said Mitchell, a day after calling for "immediate" peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel.
The envoy started his trip at a Palestinian donors' conference in Norway on Monday. Tomorrow he meets with Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, the head of the Kadima party, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. Later in the week, he travels to Lebanon and Syria.