Mitchell meets with Israelis as settlement issue looms

The US Mideast envoy called the meeting "good" but didn't say whether he discussed a settlement freeze, which Palestinians have called a prerequisite to peace talks.

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US special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell met with Israeli leaders Wednesday as part of his ongoing push to restart stalled peace talks between Israel and Palestinians. Though US officials did not mention if Mr. Mitchell discussed a settlement freeze with the Israeli officials, the special Middle East envoy said it was a "good meeting."

The session, which took place in New York City, came after Mitchell's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week in London.

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Peace talks were suspended late last year due to a disagreement about the future of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. President Barack Obama and many European leaders have called on Prime Minister Netanyahu to halt construction of the settlements. So far Israeli officials have refused.

Israeli President Shimon Peres has indicated that Israeli officials are preparing for a busy month of diplomatic activity that will conclude with a meeting between US, Israeli, and Palestinian officials in New York, reports the conservative Jerusalem Post. While Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to meet with Netanyahu until he freezes all settlement construction, President Peres has indicated that Obama may orchestrate a meeting between the two by the end of the month.

Palestinian officials, however, say that without a settlement freeze talks between President Abbas and Netanyahu are unlikely. A senior official from the Palestinian Liberation Organization told Ma'an, a Palestinian newswire, that the Obama administration has not raised this as a possibility and another senior Palestinian official, Yasser Abed Rabbo, said there has been no discussion of such a meeting.

Meanwhile, Israel's deputy vice prime minister, Silvan Shalom, has spoken out against meeting American and European demands to freeze settlement construction as a condition for reopening talks with Palestinians. YNetNews, an online Israeli news outlet, reports that Mr. Shalom says Israelis must first reach an internal agreement about the settlements before it can discuss the issue with foreign governments.

"It must be clear that these agreements that they are talking about right now – the freezing of settlements – do not undermine the situation at home," he said.
"There is a line of objectors to this, in the government, in the coalition, and certainly among Likud supporters and settler heads. We should not pay a heavy price before talks are opened."

For their part, Western negotiators say they've learned from past failures. They now understand the importance of ensuring "on-the-ground progress," such as improvements in security, the economy, and freedom of movement, reports The New York Times. They will also work to keep expectations low on both sides.

Finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli problem has become increasingly important to the Obama administration, which will depend on the support of Arab leaders to deal with the Iran threat, reports The Wall Street Journal. Arab leaders share many of Obama's concerns about Iran, but will require some diplomatic concessions from the US before partnering on the Iran issue.

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