Mitchell Returns to Mideast in Bid to Resolve Settlement Crisis

Middle East Envoy George Mitchell
U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell. Photographer: Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. envoy George Mitchell flew to Israel in a bid to keep Middle East peace talks from falling apart as West Bank settlers for a second day began construction of homes that were stalled for 10 months by government decree.

Mitchell was scheduled to reach Tel Aviv today and meet tomorrow with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a senior Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the timetable wasn’t confirmed.

Netanyahu allowed a 10-month partial moratorium on construction in the West Bank to expire on Sept. 26, enabling settlers to start building houses again yesterday. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who had said he could not continue negotiations if settlement construction resumed, plans to make a final decision after meeting with the Arab League on Oct. 4.

“We’re very pleased that Prime Minister Netanyahu stayed true to his word and didn’t bend to pressure to extend the freeze,” said Adi Mintz, a leader of the Dolev settlement, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) east of Tel Aviv, where residents planned to start building a new neighborhood today. The main street will be named after Netanyahu, he said.

State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley praised Abbas yesterday for displaying “restraint” in the wake of the resumption of building in the West Bank. Netanyahu said he’s willing to continue contacts with the Palestinians during the next few days to find a way to allow negotiations to go forward.

“We want to give the Americans four to five days, a week, to see if they can get Mr. Netanyahu to seriously reconsider the moratorium,” Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath said yesterday in an interview in Paris after the expiration of the building moratorium declared 10 months ago by the Israeli prime minister.

‘Political Difficulties’

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to Netanyahu twice to no avail on Sept. 26, hours before the moratorium was set to end.

Clinton and Netanyahu spoke again late yesterday. “They are usually quite direct with each other,” Crowley told reporters afterward, without describing the substance of the conversation. “He understands what our policy is. We understand his ongoing political difficulties.”

Most of the parties in Netanyahu’s governing coalition, including his own Likud faction, support building in the settlements.

In an effort to broaden peace efforts, Clinton conferred yesterday with her Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Muallem, in the first meeting at that level between the countries since 2007. Crowley said the Syrians are open to being included in talks on improving Syrian-Israeli relations.

Talks On Hold

On the Palestinian-Israeli issue, Netanyahu faces pressure from governments including the U.K. and France that have expressed regret Israel didn’t extend the building freeze.

Israeli building crews began work yesterday at settlements including Ariel, Oranit, Tekoa and Adam, according to Naftali Bennett, director-general of the Yesha Council, which represents more than 300,000 settlers in the West Bank.

The freeze, declared by Netanyahu in November in what he said was a bid to bring Palestinians to the negotiating table, excluded about 3,000 homes as well as some public buildings.

Israel has built about 120 settlements in the West Bank since the late 1960s. Another 100 smaller settlements, which Israel calls outposts, were built during the past decade.

The United Nations says the settlements are illegal, and the International Committee of the Red Cross says they breach the Fourth Geneva Convention governing actions on occupied territory. President Barack Obama has said the settlements aren’t legitimate.

Israel says the settlements don’t fall under the convention because the territory wasn’t recognized as belonging to anyone before the 1967 war, in which Israel prevailed, and therefore isn’t occupied.

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