American Middle East envoy George Mitchell has asked Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak for a "deposit," an advance commitment of a one-year freeze on construction in West Bank settlements.
Mitchell raised the idea in his talks with Netanyahu and Barak in Israel last week. He argued that the Arab states will not make gestures toward normalization with Israel without a guarantee of an end to building in the settlements. Mitchell said an Israeli agreement to temporarily freeze construction would facilitate concessions from the Arab states.
A senior source in Jerusalem noted that while Netanyahu and Barak did not reject the request, they disagree with the Americans over some of the details.
Mitchell asked for a construction freeze of at least a year, but Israel has agreed to suspend building on the settlements for six months, at most.
The Americans have not yet said clearly what will happen at the end of the freeze period. Israel wants a U.S. commitment to reach new understandings with Jerusalem over future developments that would be similar to those between former president George W. Bush and former prime minister Ehud Olmert.
Israel and the U.S. also disagree over the future of 2,500 housing units already under construction in the settlements. Israel wants to complete all of these homes, while Mitchell seeks to reduce the number to be completed as much as possible.
Negotiations over the issue will continue over the coming weeks. Netanyahu and Mitchell are to meet in London on August 26 for another round of talks. A highly-placed source in Jerusalem said he expected agreement on the issue at the meeting.
The Americans presented the deposit concept at a meeting in Jerusalem on Friday of representatives of the Middle East Quartet. Mitchell's deputy, David Hale, said the administration of President Barack Obama is seeking similar promises from the Arab states. Representatives of the European Union, the United Nations and Russia spoke of the need to consider the next stage - the renewal of peace negotiations - in addition to determining a party to mediate between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Hale said public disclosure in the near future of a formula for the next stage would harm negotiations.
On Monday Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, was summoned to the State Department for a reprimand, for the second time in two weeks. This time it was over the eviction of two Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. The State Department called the eviction a provocation that was contrary to the spirit of the road map. At the previous meeting, two weeks ago, State Department officials conveyed to Oren their displeasure over plans to build housing for Jews on the site of the Shepherd Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah.
Israel's ambassador in Stockholm, Benny Dagan, was also summoned to the Swedish foreign ministry in protest at the evictions of Palestinians. Sweden currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.
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