JERUSALEM – A key meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Middle East envoy George Mitchell to negotiate a freeze on Israeli settlements was postponed on Monday. The two men were instead to attend the funeral of a young fighter pilot who had aspired to fill the shoes of his father, Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut and a national hero who was killed in the Columbia space shuttle crash in 2003.
The career of Assaf Ramon, a 21-year-old enlisted soldier, has been followed closely in Israel. His death in a F-16 fighter jet crash during training exercises on Sunday has captured the empathy of the Israeli people, pushing front-page attention away from Mr. Mitchell, a former senator and veteran peacemaker.
A large part of Mitchell’s latest mission here has been to get Mr. Netanyahu to agree to a settlement freeze, which has been the most visible sticking point in Washington’s attempts to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders together to restart peace negotiations.
For Mitchell, who arrived Saturday, the days are ticking toward this weekend, when Jews and Muslims will be marking multi-day holidays and shuttering government offices. The Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, starts Friday night, while Eid il-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, is expected to begin over the weekend.
Mitchell is likely to seek some kind of breakthrough before the widely observed festivities begin and decisionmaking generally slows down. For weeks, US officials have been cajoling Israel to agree to a freeze in settlement growth in the West Bank, which appears to be a prerequisite for a meeting between Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week.
US officials, however, have tried to downplay the sense of an impending deadline.
“If everyone has agreed by the UN meeting, that would be wonderful. If not, we’ll keep working on it,” said a US official. “It would be putting words in Senator Mitchell’s mouth to say that it has to be within a specific time frame.”
Meanwhile, Netanyahu spoke for the second day in a row on the issue of a settlement freeze. His words seemed aimed at preparing the Israeli public for an expected agreement, but also at appeasing right-wingers who are opposed to such a decision and don’t want to see him “succumb” to American pressure.
“We were asked not to build at all,” Netanyahu said during the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s session on Monday. “We made it clear that we would build some 2,500 units which are already underway, and several days ago we approved 450 additional units,” he said.
“I told the Americans we would consider cutting down on construction. We’ll balance the will to make a gesture in order to promote negotiations and a peace process, and the need to enable normal life for the residents of Judea and Samaria,” he said, using the biblical names for the West Bank. “Cutting down on construction will be for a limited period and we have not reached an agreement with the Americans on the time span,” Netanyahu added.
Either way, however, construction is expected to continue on the 3,000 units already approved, precluding the possibility of the complete settlement freeze the Obama administration originally requested.
Mr. Abbas, the Palestinian leader, says he will not meet Netanyahu to relaunch peace talks unless a settlement freeze is in place. In return, Israel is asking for other Arab countries to take steps towards normalization, such as through upgrading trade ties and allowing Israeli planes to enter Arab air space. Jordan and Egypt are the only Arab countries with which Israel has peace treaties.