U.S., Israel Still at Odds over Settlements

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JERUSALEM, Israel - Israel and the U.S. remained at odds over the issue of Israeli building in settlements, following a meeting between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and U.S. special Middle East envoy George Mitchell on Tuesday.

Topping the agenda of their four-hour meeting was the issue of construction in Jewish communities in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria).

According to a joint statement released after the meeting, the two discussed a "full range of issues related to Middle East peace and security" and "contributions" that Israel, the Palestinians, Arab countries and international community should make to the effort.

Specifically, the discussions "covered a wide range of measures needed to create a climate conducive to peace," the statement said.

For the Palestinians, that included taking measures regarding security and incitement. For the Arab states, it meant taking steps toward normalization of relations with Israel. And for Israel, it focused on easing access and movement for Palestinians in the West Bank and on settlement activity 

The discussions are set to continue in two weeks between Mitchell and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and press reports indicated that a deal was pending. 

Tensions have been high recently over Washington's demand that Israel completely freeze construction in Israeli communities in the West Bank. But Israel has said that while it will not build new settlements, it will continue to build in existing communities where some 300,000 Israelis live.

A sign of just how strained relations have become is Likud parliamentarian Danny Danon's call for fellow Knesset members to boycott the U.S. Embassy's 4th of July celebrations in Tel Aviv this week. The prestigious event is held annually at the ambassador's residence.

In a letter, Danon said that statements from American government representatives "regarding Israel's commitment to stop building in Judea and Samaria, including natural growth" and statements accusing Israel of lying to the White House over the years "seriously damage Israel's honor."

Danon called on Knesset members to skip the event to "deliver to the American administration a clear message – that the State of Israel is independent and not President Obama's pet."

Other reports have said the Obama administration is interested in toning down the settlement conflict between the U.S. and Israel, recognizing that it does not serve U.S. interests in the Middle East.

A "settlement freeze" was part of the road map peace plan but Israel – and recently some officials from former President George Bush's administration – said there was an agreement that Israel could continue building for "natural growth" in existing communities.

Earlier this week, Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon never would have entered into the "road map" without such an understanding, and Israel was expecting the U.S. to abide by that agreement.

"Settlement freeze, the term used in that agreement, was interpreted in an agreed way by Israel and America and acted upon for six years. We haven't heard a word for six years from the American administration on the way it was done," Meridor said.

Sources - The Jerusalem Post, YNet, Ha'aretz

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