US 'wants year-long Israeli settlement freeze'

The United States wants Israel to sign up to a one-year freeze on settlement activity, arguing it would pave the way for Arab concessions in the peace process, the Haaretz daily reported on Thursday.

The proposal was made by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell in talks last week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the newspaper said, although the premier’s spokesperson dismissed the report as “mere media speculation”.

Haaretz noted that Arab states want a guaranteed end to the building of settlements in occupied territories before they will take steps towards normalisation of ties with Israel.

Mitchell asked for a freeze of at least one year, but Israel agreed to suspend construction in settlements for six months at most, the paper said, citing “a senior source” in Jerusalem.

The Israelis also say any deal would have to allow for the completion of 2 500 housing units under construction in the West Bank, while Mitchell wants the number to be brought down as much as possible.

It remains unclear what would happen at the end of the freeze period, the daily said.

Haaretz said talks on the proposal will continue when Netanyahu and Mitchell meet again in London on August 26.

The issue of settlements is one of the main stumbling blocks in the stalled Middle East peace process.

Israel and the Palestinians relaunched negotiations after a break of more than six years at an international conference in the US in November 2007, but the talks made little progress before being suspended amid the Gaza war in December 2008.

Netanyahu’s refusal to heed Washington’s repeated demands that Israel halt all settlement activity on occupied Palestinian land led to a rare public row that raised tensions between the two close allies to levels not seen in years.

Washington last month made a major diplomatic push to get all players in the Middle East to take steps towards a comprehensive regional peace, sending Mitchell, Defence Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Advisor James Jones to the region.

But Netanyahu on Thursday got strong backing from a visiting Republican lawmaker, who echoed his message that the world community should focus on Iran rather than on settlements.

“We believe the focus should be on the existential threat to Israel from a nuclear-armed Iran,” said Cantor, who is leading a 25-strong delegation of Republican lawmakers on a week-long visit.

“I don’t quite know what is driving the focus on the issue of settlements,” said Eric Cantor, the Republican Whip in the US House of Representatives. “We share the view with Prime Minister Netanyahu that we do not want to see undue pressure placed on Israel,” he told Israeli public radio.

About 500 000 Israelis live in settlements across the West Bank, including annexed Arab east Jerusalem.

The international community considers all settlements in occupied territory illegal, saying they violate international law under which an occupying power cannot transfer part of its population to the land it occupies.

Israel rejects the argument but has repeatedly pledged to raze so-called wildcat settlements built without its own authorisation. In recent months, it has demolished a few tiny outposts that consisted of little more than a few shacks but right-wing activists immediately started rebuilding.—AFP

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