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Israel and US hold settlement discussions

The crucial meeting comes as the rift between the US and Israel grows over West Bank occupation.

Workers are continuing to build new houses at the Israeli West Bank settlement of Adam, north of Jerusalem.
Workers are continuing to build new houses at the Israeli West Bank settlement of Adam, north of Jerusalem.

TEL AVIV // Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, will meet with George Mitchell, the top US Middle East envoy, in New York today for talks aimed at bridging a growing rift between the two countries on the expansion of Jewish settlements in occupied territory that Palestinians want as part of their future state. The discussion between Mr Barak and Mr Mitchell takes place less than a week after the last-minute cancellation of a meeting between the US emissary and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, amid media speculation that both sides needed more time to work out a compromise on the settlement issue.

The differences may deepen, however, after Israel's defence ministry announced just hours before Mr Barak departed for the US yesterday that it had given the go-ahead for the building of 50 new homes in the West Bank. The houses are meant for some 200 settlers who are being moved from a small outpost that has not been authorised by the Israeli government to Adam, a 25-year-old community of 3,500 settlers located north of Jerusalem.

The units are part of a plan to eventually build 1,450 houses in Adam, most of which have not yet obtained final approval, the ministry said. Officials in the Palestinian Authority, which refuses to restart negotiations with Israel's new government until settlement expansion ceases, blasted the new construction as destructive to the peace process. Since Mr Netanyahu took power in late March, tensions with Washington have escalated as Israel rejected the US demand to employ a total freeze on the construction of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Furthermore, pressure on Israel is increasing after Mr Netanyahu encountered similar calls last week from Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, during his first official visit to Europe since taking office, as well as from G8 foreign ministers who met in Italy on Friday. As a compromise during today's talks, Mr Barak may propose temporarily halting all new building projects or limiting them to high-rise construction, Israeli media reported yesterday.

The Israeli defence minister has indicated a temporary freeze will not be ruled out. When asked to comment on a report on Sunday in Yediot Ahronot, Israel's most popular newspaper, that he plans to suggest a three-month moratorium on beginning new settlement construction, while work on some 2,000 structures in late-stage building continues, he said: "The matter mentioned in the headlines has not been finalised.

"The issue of the settlements, as part of a broad range of issues, is part of our dialogue with the Americans." Mr Barak appeared to have been tapped for the sensitive task of narrowing the gap with Israel's most powerful ally because the defence minister is viewed as more moderate because of his role as the head of the Labor party, the only centrist member of the predominantly right-wing government.

The Labor party has long supported Palestinian statehood and significant withdrawals from occupied Palestinian territory - which most of the current governing coalition partners oppose - yet it has also backed continued settlement construction. Commentators said the US may offer to make a settlement freeze more politically palatable for Mr Netanyahu by suggesting vaguer wording be publicly used to describe such a construction halt and by repeating demands for the Palestinians to take actions such as reining in militants.

Today's meeting is also likely to address the US's long-standing demand that Israel dismantle so-called wildcat outposts that have been built without formal government approval - yet typically with the tacit backing of its ministries - as a first step to a rollback of settlement expansion. For years, Israel has pledged to remove such outposts, many of them little more than a cluster of mobile homes, but so far little has been done, and most of the few that have been taken apart were quickly rebuilt by settlers.

Mr Netanyahu, according to analysts, may have little choice but to mend the rift with Washington. "The Israeli public will severely punish Netanyahu if he alienates the White House," said Yaron Ezrahi, a liberal political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "To Israelis, America is absolutely vital for Israel strategically and politically." Mr Ezrahi said the pressure on Mr Netanyahu may also mount if ongoing reconciliation talks succeed between Fatah, the western-backed movement that holds sway in the West Bank, and Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip.

He added: "An agreement between the factions will increase the extent to which Israel can no longer resist that pressure, because conflict among the Palestinians has been Netanyahu's strongest argument against responding to the demands by the White House." @Email:vbekker@thenational.ae