Netanyahu Hails U.S. Retreat on Settlement Freeze Demands

PM to meet with U.S. envoy George Mitchell on Monday evening in Jerusalem; Obama administration wants Israel to take a position on core issues, with an emphasis on borders.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed on Monday a U.S. decision to drop efforts to achieve a construction freeze on Israeli settlements and focus on resolving core issues of the Middle East conflict.

"To reach peace, we have to discuss the issues that are truly delaying peace ... I welcome the fact that we will now begin discussing these issues and try to narrow gaps," Netanyahu said in a speech to an economic forum, hours before a U.S. envoy George Mitchell was due to arrive in Israel.

Daniel Bar-On

In the speech, Netanyahu cited issues such as his demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, security arrangements and the future of Palestinian refugees.

Mitchell will meet with Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Monday evening to put forth U.S. ideas for moving the peace process forward.

Mitchell is expected to make clear to Netanyahu that the Obama administration wants the prime minister to take a position in the coming weeks on the core issues, with an emphasis on borders.

Mitchell is also scheduled to hold talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. But the brunt of the work will be in Israel because the Palestinians have already submitted their opening positions on all the core issues - borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees, water and the settlements.

The Americans have heard little new from Netanyahu, with the exception of ideas on security and aspects considered secondary such as the environment and the economy.

Mitchell's visit to Israel will be his first in three months. On September 15 he took part with Clinton in a tripartite meeting with Netanyahu and Abbas.

Direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians stalled when Israel's 10-month freeze on settlement construction expired on September 26.

Last week, the U.S. and Israel announced that talks on a deal for Israel to renew the settlement freeze in exchange for a set of U.S. guarantees had reached a dead end.

The U.S. now wants a return to indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks.

On Monday, Netanyahu hailed the U.S. decision to drop its efforts to get Israel to renew the settlement freeze.

"I welcome this American decision. It is good for Israel. It is good for peace," Netanyahu said.