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Settlement issue looms over Netanyahu's Europe trip

Israeli Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu begins a four-day trip to Europe on Monday. In London on Wednesday, he'll discuss how to fast-track the peace process with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 24, 2009

A Palestinian laborer works at a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim near Jerusalem.

Baz Ratner /Reuters

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embarked on a four-day trip to Europe on Monday, during which he will meet in London with US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell to try to firm up an agreement for fast-tracking peace talks with the Palestinians.

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But Mr. Netanyahu has been far more optimistic about an imminent return to negotiations than has his counterpart, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been dragging his heels amid an ongoing dispute over Israeli settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. President Obama has demanded that Israel declare a halt in settlement growth, and has asked that, in return, Arab countries take steps towards "normalization" of ties with Israel.

Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Tuesday, with Mr. Mitchell on Wednesday, then with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Thursday. One key goal of these talks is to bridge differences between the Obama administration's proposal that Israel freeze settlement growth for two years and Israel's offer of a six-month "pilot" break in settlement construction while talks are ongoing. Although Netanyahu is seeking to curb any expectations for a breakthrough on the trip, Israeli analysts say they expect him to agree to a year as a compromise.

Tamping down expectations

Netanyahu appeared optimistic as he geared up for his trip, telling his cabinet at their weekly meeting Sunday that talks could resume by late September, "but will first require reaching understandings with the Americans and the Palestinian Authority." But Mr. Abbas, girded by the vote of confidence he received from his party's rank-and-file in this month's Fatah elections – the first in 20 years – says that he will not commence negotiations unless Israel agrees to a full-on freeze in settlement building.