Text size

Senior U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama's Mideast envoy George Mitchell, say they might propose immediate talks on setting Israel's border along the West Bank.

The move comes in light of Israel's opposition to a freeze on settlement construction and would determine which settlements will remain in Israel in a final deal that would see the emergence of a Palestinian state.

The American proposal was raised in recent weeks following Israeli suggestions that there is no reason to cease construction in the large settlement blocs. Such construction would accommodate natural growth. The Israelis say that since those blocs will remain in Israel under a final-status agreement, there is no point in preventing construction.

The Israeli position was mainly directed at the blocs of Gush Etzion, Alfei Menashe, Ariel, Ma'aleh Adumim and certain areas adjoining Jerusalem.

The American officials countered by suggesting that they initiate immediate negotiations on the border between Israel and a future Palestinian state. This, the Americans insisted, would make it easier for everyone to decide where settlement construction could take place.

Israeli sources told Haaretz that they are not entirely sure what the American proposals mean. "We do not know what precisely they intend," said a senior official who took part in some of the meetings.

Another official said that "this is essentially a threat and a verbal form of leverage" that is meant to clarify to Israel the American insistence to find a resolution to the issue of settlement construction as soon as possible.

Mitchell will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel on Tuesday to discuss the settlements.

Ahead of Mitchell's visit, a sharp disagreement has erupted over whether there have been earlier understandings with the United States over construction characterized by "natural growth."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Saturday that "there is no memorialization of any informal and oral agreements. If they did occur, which of course people say they did, they did not become part of the official position of the United States government."

Clinton added that "there are contrary documents that suggest that they were not to be viewed as in any way contradicting the obligations that Israel undertook pursuant to the road map ... [and] those obligations are very clear."

Meanwhile, Obama reiterated during meetings on Saturday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy that the Americans insisted on a freeze in settlement construction.

In Germany, Obama said that his Cairo speech drew a great deal of attention for his demands of Israel and that "less attention has been focused on the insistence on my part that the Palestinians and the Arab states have to take very concrete actions.?

However, both Merkel and Sarkozy praised his Cairo address. The chancellor said that ?it was an ideal basis for positive action, especially accelerating the peace process in the Middle East.? She said a solution of two states for two peoples was necessary.

According to Sarkozy, ?I told the president that we are in complete agreement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and how much we support American diplomacy as it seeks to ... stop and freeze settlement construction.?

Netanyahu and his aides, meanwhile, are concerned by the complications over the settlements with the U.S. administration. They say they had not expected that the differences would be so wide.

Netanyahu believed that any problems in ties with the Obama administration at this time would revolve around Iran?s nuclear ambitions. He was surprised to discover that the new president does not consider himself obligated by the informal understandings between Israel and the Bush administration on natural-growth construction in settlements.

Ghajar pullout

Netanyahu told Clinton during his recent visit to Washington that the results of the Lebanese general election will affect Israel?s decision on whether to withdraw from the village of Ghajar on the border between Israel and Lebanon.

A political source in Jerusalem said Netanyahu had hinted that if Hezbollah wins the parliamentary elections, Israel will put on hold all preparations to pull out from the northern portion of the village.