A meeting between Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the US peace envoy Senator George Mitchell due to take place in Paris on Thursday has been canceled. Israeli officials say the meeting was called off at their request but an Israeli media report said the cancellation came after a stern message from the White House: "Once you've finished the homework we gave you on stopping construction in the settlements, let us know. Until then, there's no point in having Mitchell fly to Paris to meet you."
Netanyahu - a slow learner
During his historic speech in Cairo earlier this month, the US president Barack Obama said: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop." On Tuesday, The Guardian reported: "Israel's defence ministry has proposed legalising 60 existing homes at a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, and building another 240 homes at the site, despite US calls for a halt to settlement growth. "Construction at the outpost, known as Water Reservoir Hill, near the Talmon settlement, north of Ramallah, would 'greatly damage' the freedom of movement of Palestinian farmers in the area, according to Bimkom, an Israeli planning rights group. "It said the construction plan was put forward for public inspection shortly after the Israeli government was formed this spring and was first approved by Ehud Barak, the defence minister. It was now awaiting final approval." Meanwhile, Reuters reported: "Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put off talks in Europe with US President Barack Obama's peace envoy in order to prepare the issues more thoroughly, a senior Israeli official said on Wednesday. " 'It was the Israeli side that asked to defer the meeting with Senator (George) Mitchell,' he told reporters travelling with Netanyahu in Rome. " 'We wanted more professional work done on the issues by staff prior to the meeting with the prime minister,' the official said, without specifying which issues were most problematic. "He denied Israeli media reports that US officials took the decision because they were irritated by the Israeli government's refusal to drop its policy of allowing continued building activity in some Jewish settlements in the West Bank." One such report came from Yedioth Ahronoth: "The ongoing dispute between Prime Minister Netanyahu and the US administration over construction in the settlements resulted in the cancellation of the meeting that had been scheduled to be held tomorrow in Paris between the prime minister and US special envoy George Mitchell. "Yitzhak Molcho, the prime minister's special adviser, held secret talks this past weekend with senior US officials in Washington in an attempt to bridge the gaps that have had such an inimical impact on Israeli-American relations. Molcho's interlocutors in Washington said once again that the United States was opposed to continued construction in the settlements and in the settlement blocs, even if the rationale for that construction was to meet the needs of 'natural growth'. "Given that situation, Molcho and his American interlocutors agreed that there was no point holding a meeting between Mitchell and Netanyahu, and that talks needed to be pursued in an attempt to find a compromise solution. "A high-ranking political source said that the White House sent Netanyahu the following stern message: 'Once you've finished the homework we gave you on stopping construction in the settlements, let us know. Until then, there's no point in having Mitchell fly to Paris to meet you.'" Haaretz reported: "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that international 'arguing' over Israel's stance on settlements was impeding progress on the Middle East peace progress. "In an interview with Italy's RAI TV, Netanyahu insisted that settlement activity in East Jerusalem and the West Bank must be viewed as separate issues, as Jerusalem is an inseparable part of Israel. "He also said that Israel has been forthcoming with its intentions to halt construction while still allowing for natural growth in existing communities, which he called 'an equitable position which reflexes our willingness to enter immediately in 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 towards peace,' he said." Agence France Presse said: "French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to impose a 'total freeze' on Jewish settlements in the West Bank but the hawkish leader rejected the call. "Netanyahu, on his first visit to Europe since taking office in April, said after the talks with Sarkozy that Israel would not build new settlements but he did not rule out the expansion of existing settlements. " 'We will not build new settlements and we will not expropriate additional lands for settlements. We know that our people are living there and, pending a final, political settlement, they have to live a normal life,' he said. "The French presidency said earlier that Sarkozy had 'called on Israel to immediately take all possible measures to encourage confidence' in talks with the Palestinians, 'beginning with the total freeze of settlement activities.'" In The New York Times, Tony Judt wrote: "Israel needs 'settlements'. They are intrinsic to the image it has long sought to convey to overseas admirers and fund-raisers: a struggling little country securing its rightful place in a hostile environment by the hard moral work of land clearance, irrigation, agrarian self-sufficiency, industrious productivity, legitimate self-defense and the building of Jewish communities. But this neo-collectivist frontier narrative rings false in modern, high-tech Israel. And so the settler myth has been transposed somewhere else - to the Palestinian lands seized in war in 1967 and occupied illegally ever since. "It is thus not by chance that the international press is encouraged to speak and write of Jewish 'settlers' and 'settlements' in the West Bank. But this image is profoundly misleading. The largest of these controversial communities in geographic terms is Maale Adumim. It has a population in excess of 35,000, demographically comparable to Montclair, New Jersey, or Winchester, England. What is most striking, however, about Maale Adumim is its territorial extent. This 'settlement' comprises more than 30 square miles - making it one and a half times the size of Manhattan and nearly half as big as the borough and city of Manchester, England. Some 'settlement'. "There are about 120 official Israeli settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank. In addition, there are 'unofficial' settlements whose number is estimated variously from 80 to 100. Under international law, there is no difference between these two categories; both are contraventions of Article 47 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which explicitly prohibits the annexation of land consequent to the use of force, a principle re-stated in Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter. "Thus the distinction so often made in Israeli pronouncements between 'authorised' and 'unauthorised' settlements is specious - all are illegal, whether or not they have been officially approved and whether or not their expansion has been 'frozen' or continues apace." In The Jerusalem Post, Larry Derfner wrote: "Obama's demand for a settlement freeze is the first test of his determination to do what's necessary to end this conflict; he will have many, many more if he gets past this one. If he means to succeed where his predecessors failed, he will have to go to extraordinary lengths - in my opinion, to be prepared to present Israel with the choice of keeping the settlements or keeping America's support. If he goes easy on the Netanyahu government, if he does no more than grumble over settlement growth like every president except George H W Bush did before, he will fail. And at that moment, finally, no honest person will still be able to say the occupation is provisional. "For those who dread such a moment, who find it unthinkable, now is not the time to worry about whether a family in French Hill should be allowed to add on a room or not. Rather, it's time to worry that the future of this country will go down the tubes very shortly if Obama loses the fight over the settlement freeze and Netanyahu wins. "This is no time, either, to be afraid of being called a traitor by a bunch of right-wing blowhards. To everyone who knows that the settlements are a disaster - morally, practically and every other way - you have a choice. "You can either stand up for this misbegotten Israeli government, or you can stand up for Israel. If there's any hope left - and there may not be - the one we've got riding on Obama is the last one. This is not just about the 'fierce urgency of now' - this is do or die."