Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday that he was committed to continuing direct negotiations with the Palestinians, amid speculations that the recently relaunched peace process was in danger due to Israel's reluctance to renew its construction freeze in West Bank settlement.
Netanyahu made his remarks before entering talks with special U.S. envoy George Mitchell, who met a day earlier in Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"We are making efforts together with Senator Mitchell to continue to hold the talks with President Abbas," Netanyahu said. "We want the talks to continue and I want this. We have a mission of peace."
Netanyahu was also scheduled to meet Friday with European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton.
The United States is reportedly incensed over Netanyahu's rejection of a draft letter that would have extended the freeze on West Bank settlement construction, formulated by advisers to the U.S. and Israeli leaders.
The letter, written by U.S. President Barack Obama's advisers and by Netanyahu's and Defense Minister Ehud Barak's adviser Isaac Molho, would have had Israel freezing construction in the settlements for another 60 days in exchange for unprecedented U.S. political and security assistance.
Senior American officials said they were frustrated by Netanyahu's conduct in the affair.
"We're not buying the excuse of political difficulties anymore," a senior U.S. official told his Israeli counterpart.
"The Americans said Netanyahu's conduct is humiliating the president," said a senior European diplomat who met with senior U.S. officials in New York last week.
The details of the letter were revealed by researcher David Makovsky on the website of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
According to the report, the letter included incentives crucial to Israel's security that Netanyahu has been demanding for years. For example, the United States pledged to support Israel's position on stationing Israeli troops in the Jordan valley after the establishment of a Palestinian state, in order to prevent weapons smuggling.
The United States also would not ask Israel to further extend the building moratorium and would pledge that the issue of settlements would be dealt with only as part of final-status talks with the Palestinians, the letter reportedly said.
The United States also reportedly would veto any UN Security Council resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this year, would upgrade Israel's defense capabilities after the peace agreement, and would increase security assistance.
This reportedly would include providing Israel with advanced fighter jets and early warning systems, including satellites. The U.S. also would start talks with Arab countries toward a regional agreement vis-a-vis Iran.
Obama adviser Dennis Ross, who is the moving force behind the letter, is believed to have encouraged Obama to change his policy toward Netanyahu in order to come off as friendlier. Ross reportedly worked with Barak and Molho on the letter during the UN General Assembly in New York.
The White House denied that Obama sent a letter to Netanyahu, but did not deny that the United States and Israel had worked on a letter.
The Prime Minister's Office declined to answer any questions on the subject.
According to a source involved in discussions of the letter, Netanyahu agreed to the talks conducted by Barak and Molho in New York, but began to backpedal in two phone calls with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Saturday night.
On Sunday, Netanyahu said he appreciated the letter but could not accept the American proposal because it included a two-month extension of the construction moratorium, which he said would damage his public credibility.
According to an Israeli source involved in the details of the affair, Ross was very insulted by Netanyahu's conduct and considered it "treason."
To head off a possible public confrontation following Netanyahu's rejection of the letter, Ross and White House Middle East adviser Dan Shapiro met Tuesday in Washington with a large group of Jewish senators and congresspersons to report on talks with Israel and the draft letter.
According to a source informed about the meeting, Ross said the administration was surprised that Netanyahu had turned down the draft. To increase pressure on Netanyahu, Ross reportedly passed on the draft to Makovsky, who published it online Tuesday night.
According to a senior Israeli official, the "guarantee letter" may now be off the table and the Americans may be formulating a different solution to allow continued negotiations.
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