TEL AVIV // George Mitchell, the United States's envoy to the Middle East, met senior Israeli officials yesterday in what appeared to be part of an unusually vigorous US bid to step up pressure on Israel to freeze Jewish settlement construction on occupied Palestinian land.
Although Mr Mitchell was understood to have focused on the settlements in his discussions in Israel, his visit may also have proved decisive before what is expected to be a major peace policy speech on Sunday by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. Some Israeli commentators say the address may signal a shift in the Israeli leader's hawkish stance on peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Mr Mitchell arrived amid much media speculation that the United States is pressing Mr Netanyahu to reverse his opposition to Palestinian statehood and agree to curtail the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, territory viewed by Palestinians as part of their future state. Before a meeting with Shimon Peres, Israel's president, the US envoy stressed that "we all share an obligation to create the conditions for the prompt resumption and early conclusion of negotiations".
Mr Mitchell made a bid to play down what seems to be the most public impasse between the two countries in at least a decade on the advancement of Israeli-Palestinian talks. He said: "Let me be clear. These are no disagreements among adversaries. The United States and Israel are and will remain close allies and friends." But he added that both Israelis and Palestinians needed to meet their obligations under the long-stalled US-backed "road map" plan. Since being sworn into office in March, Mr Netanyahu has not publicly embraced the 2003 plan, which calls for a stop to Israeli settlement expansion and an end to Palestinian attacks against Israel.
Mr Mitchell convened with Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, to discuss the fate of settlements and met Mr Netanyahu as well as Avigdor Lieberman, the ultranationalist foreign minister, later in the day. Mr Netanyahu's announcement this week about his intent to outline his policy in a speech on Sunday appears to signal that the US pressure is having an effect. Furthermore, his security cabinet is due to meet today to discuss easing the country's blockade of the impoverished Gaza Strip, a move seen as an attempt to fend off international pressure on the settlements issue.
His address will take place 10 days after Barack Obama gave a speech in Cairo that aimed at repairing US relations with Arabs and Muslims, and in which the US president described the Palestinian plight as "intolerable" and urged Israel to recognise "Palestine's right to exist". Mr Netanyahu's address comes amid reports that Mr Obama is expected to soon provide more details on his plan for stepping up the Middle East peace process. Al-Sharq al-Awsat, a London-based Arabic newspaper, cited unidentified Egyptian sources this week as saying that the United States has formulated a two-year plan for reaching a two-state accord and was now waiting for an Israeli response.
It remains unclear whether Mr Netanyahu will publicly endorse the two-state solution during his speech. The prime minister opposes an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, partly because he believes the territory will be used by Palestinian militants to launch attacks against Israel. Furthermore, analysts said he does not want to appear as if he is caving in to US demands that are opposed by most of the members in his right-wing cabinet.
Mr Barak, the head of the centrist Labor Party, the sole member of the ruling coalition that endorses Palestinian statehood, is understood to be pressing Mr Netanyahu to voice support for an independent Palestinian state. However, Mr Barak backs Mr Netanyahu's insistence that Israel must keep building to meet what the country vaguely labels the "natural growth" of settlements, by which it refers to building new homes for growing families within existing communities.
Mr Netanyahu is expected to adhere to his demand that Israel be allowed to continue such construction in the larger settlement blocs it plans to keep under any peace pact, according to Israeli media. The international community considers all the settlements to be illegal. The growing confrontation with the United States has raised both alarm and speculation in the Israeli media. Yesterday, Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, cited unidentified advisers to Mr Netanyahu as assessing that Mr Obama is spurring a dispute with Israel to improve US relations with Arab states, whose support he needs to conclude the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr Mitchell, during his visit in Israel, is also understood to have urged Mr Netanyahu to renew peace talks with Syria, allow more food and merchandise into the Gaza Strip and push the country to stop using deadly weapons against unarmed Palestinians, according to local reports. The US envoy is scheduled to meet Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the western-backed Palestinian Authority, today in Ramallah in the West Bank.