Settlement Issue Delays Israel-U.S. Meeting

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PARIS, France - U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell said he had cancelled Thursday's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Paris, but a senior official in the prime minister's office said Israel called it off.

Mitchell claimed the meeting was cancelled due to the ongoing dispute over construction in Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and in east Jerusalem neighborhoods.

"Israel is the one that called off the meeting with Mitchell due to the need to collect data and present it to him in an organized manner," said the official, who is traveling with the prime minister's delegation in Europe.

"The claim that the Americans cancelled the meeting due to a disagreement is unfounded," he said.

"The French confirmed this yesterday in a preparatory talk ahead of the prime minister's arrival," the official continued, "and said that the Americans informed them that Mitchell would not arrive (in Paris for the meeting), following an Israeli request."

In lieu of the meeting between Netanyahu and Mitchell, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will meet with Mitchell in Washington on Monday in an effort to mediate the dispute.

Meanwhile, following Tuesday's meetings with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Rome, Netanyahu said that despite the U.S. stance on construction in Jewish communities, Israel would continue trying to reach an agreement with Washington.

"I repeated to Berlusconi what I say everywhere. We will not build new settlements. We will not expropriate land to expand settlements, and we accept the principle that the discussions about the settlements will take place in final-status negotiations," Netanyahu said.

"[But], we don't want them [the U.S. government] to forbid us to carry on with normal life in the settlements in Judea and Samaria," he said.

"Pending a final peace agreement, the people who are there [in the communities] will be allowed to live a normal life," the prime minister said in an interview on Italy's RAI television network.

"They have children. They need kindergartens. They need health clinics and so on. This is, I think, an equitable position that reflects our willingness to enter immediately into peace negotiations and get on with peace. I think that the more we spend time arguing about this, the more we waste time instead of moving toward peace," he said.

Netanyahu said he was encouraged by Berlusconi's acceptance of the two principal points - Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and demilitarization of a future Palestinian state - which he made in his speech from Bar-Ilan University a week and a half ago.

Netanyahu will meet with French officials in Paris on Wednesday afternoon.

Sources: Ynet news, The Jerusalem Post

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