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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    A Palestinian laborer works at a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim near Jerusalem.
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    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office on Sunday.
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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.

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.

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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.

Trying to play down rising expectations of a major advance this week, Netanyahu spokesman Nir Hefetz told reporters before his London visit that "the prime minister expects there to be a certain degree of progress, but no breakthrough is expected." Before leaving Israel, Netanyahu also emphasized that he would not agree to any limits on Israeli building inside Jerusalem – including in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that Palestinians see as the seat of their future capital.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Dr. Saeb Erekat, said that news of Israeli plans to construct a building of 100-plus units in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras el-Amud showed a lack of good faith by Netanyahu as he headed to Europe.

"This proposal comes on the eve of [Netanyahu's] meeting with [Mitchell], and at a time when international efforts to reinvigorate the peace process are being held up by Israel's refusal to freeze all settlement activity in line with its international and road map obligations," Dr. Erekat said. "This does not help create an environment for negotiations. Rather than play a constructive role in efforts to restart negotiations, Israel continues to undermine and frustrate these efforts."

To build or not to build?

Last week, Netanyahu's cabinet announced that it had issued no new building tenders – invitations to build new housing units – in the West Bank in the half-year since his government came to power. But a new report from Peace Now, an Israeli group opposed to settlement expansion, said that despite the moratorium Netanyahu's government touted last week, more than 40,000 new homes could be built under plans already ratified in recent years.

A US-Israeli agreement on a settlement halt, if one is reached, is likely to exempt the construction of 700 buildings that are already underway, consisting of 2,500 housing units, the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv reported Monday.

A tougher line on Iran

While he has an audience in Europe, Netanyahu is also expected to ask European leaders to take a tougher line on Iran's nuclear development program, and is seeking to improve economic and political ties with the European Union (EU).

An Israeli request to upgrade ties was shelved following the war between Israel and Hamas in December and January.

Netanyahu's visit is also likely to be colored by a flap between Israel and Sweden, which currently holds the EU presidency, after a Swedish paper ran a story last week accusing the Israeli army of taking the organs of Palestinians who died while in Israeli army custody in the 1990s.

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