Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Israel PM meeting with Obama envoy postponed

By Allyn Fisher-Ilan
ROME (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama's peace envoy delayed talks planned in Europe as the allies negotiated differences on Jewish settlement building, officials said Tuesday.
Netanyahu, in Rome on the first leg of a European visit, told reporters traveling with him his government was also pushing for a deal to free a soldier held captive by Palestinian Islamist militants of Hamas who control the Gaza Strip.
The meeting between Netanyahu and Obama's envoy, George Mitchell, had been set to take place in Paris Thursday and to focus on bridging differences over Israel's expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, Israeli officials said.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak will instead visit Washington next Monday to meet Mitchell, a delay that will give both sides more time to "clarify some of the issues," Netanyahu spokesman Nir Hefetz said.
A U.S. State Department spokesman confirmed the talks were postponed and the plan for Mitchell to meet with Barak. The spokesman, Ian Kelly, had no comment on why it was important for Mitchell to see Barak first.
A senior U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said: "Mitchell and the prime minister jointly decided to postpone their meeting" and that Barak and Mitchell would meet in Washington Monday to discuss "a range of issues."
An Israeli official told Reuters the U.S. and Israel were seeking to achieve "understandings" on settlement building in occupied land, an issue that has delayed the resumption of stalled Middle East peace talks.
"The goal we have is to try to reach understandings with the (Obama) administration on settlements, and move on," the Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
SETTLEMENT FREEZE?
Obama has called for a settlement freeze.
Netanyahu has said he would not build additional enclaves in the territory Israel captured in a 1967 war that Palestinians seek for a state, but wants to build in existing settlements to accommodate what he calls "natural growth."
Netanyahu told reporters "if there is a desire, then it is possible to achieve an understanding" on the issue.
Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pressed the Israeli leader in their two-hour meeting to offer a "signal" he was ready for compromise on the settlement issue, an aide to the Italian leader said.
Reports in the Arab press said an agreement was imminent for the release of soldier Gilad Shalit who captured in a cross-border raid from Gaza in 2006 in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Netanyahu said: "To this moment, I haven't received any such information ... We are making efforts on various levels. We are now examining various possibilities." Continued...
Source: Reuters

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