Democratic Congressman: Obama Demand for Settlement Freeze 'Mistaken'

Israel sees progress in talks with U.S.; Source: Freeze likely to last 9 to 12 months, exclude East Jerusalem.

The chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee said last week that the Obama administration is making a mistake in demanding Israel completely freeze construction in the settlements. Congressman Howard Berman, a Democrat from California, made these comments during a closed meeting with Jewish leaders in Los Angeles.

Berman said Israel and the U.S. are close to reaching an agreement that will "be face-saving for everyone."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to travel to London tomorrow for a crucial meeting on Wednesday with special U.S. envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell. The meeting is meant to determine Israel's future construction policy in the settlements.

The U.S. administration is keen to gain a freeze on settlement construction for at least a year, but so far Israel has only offered to stop building for six months. But Israeli envoys Yitzhak Molcho and Brig. Gen. Mike Herzog recently briefed a six-minister advisory panel on what they called the narrowing differences between Jerusalem and Washington on settlements.

However, Israeli officials said this weekend they believe Wednesday's meeting with Mitchell may not yield an agreement, and that several more meetings will be needed to solve the matter, which may even have to wait for the summit between Netanyahu and Obama planned for September.

A political source in Jerusalem said Friday that ultimately it is likely the freeze will be for nine to 12 months and would not apply to East Jerusalem or include most of the housing units already under construction.

On Wednesday afternoon, after the meeting with Mitchell, Netanyahu will travel to Berlin; on Thursday he is scheduled to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel. The German Foreign Ministry issued a statement Friday in which it called for urgent progress on the issue of settlements so progress in the peace process will be possible.

Congressman Berman met on August 14 with Jewish leaders in Los Angeles. The senior congressman, who is in close touch with Mitchell and is updated regularly on developments in the Middle East, said during the meeting that the disagreement between Israel and the U.S. over the settlements will be resolved by the end of August in a manner that is satisfactory to both sides.

However, Berman was highly critical of the conduct of the Obama administration, saying the demand for absolute cessation of construction in the settlements was "mistaken."

Berman blamed the stance of the administration on the settlements for having hardened the Palestinian position unjustifiably. "Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is waiting for the U.S. to present him Israel on a platter," Berman told the Jewish leaders. The Congressional leader said that this was a mistake, adding that the PA has responsibilities too, such as countering incitement against Israel.