Netanyahu Heads to Washington as Settlement Building Casts Shadow Over Peace Talks

Ahead of historic talks, prime minister refuses to reassure Palestinians by extending West Bank settlement freeze, due to expire late September.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boarded a plane for Washington on Tuesday morning to begin new negotiations with the Palestinians that he has said could bring "a stable peace for us and for our children".

But despite Netanyahu's optimism, negotiations will start under a cloud of uncertainty, as Israel has still failed to address Palestinian demands to continue its 10-month construction freeze on West Bank settlements, due to expire on September 26.

Benjamin Netanyahu - Moshe Milner - Aug 31 2010
Moshe Milner

"We have held talks with the Americans and there is no change in our stance," Netanyahu said at Sunday's cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. "I assume that there will be problems, but the framework of negotiations is the way it was established, without preconditions. I do not know that there is any intention to go beyond discussion on procedure in Washington."

The Palestinians have repeatedly threatened to walk out of the U.S.-backed talks if building continues.

But so far, the prime minister has refused to hold preliminary meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the issue, on Sunday telling his Likud party ministers that he had made no promises to the United States about extending the freeze.

Netanyahu also vetoed a meeting this week between the Israeli and Palestinian chief negotiators, Isaac Molcho and Saeb Erekat, Haaretz has learned.

However, it emerged on Tuesday that Defense Minister Ehud Barak had met secretly with Abbas on Monday during a flying visit to Jordan for talks with the country's ruler, King Abdullah II – prompting speculation that Israel had offered at least some reassurances to the Palestinians over its commitment to the success of the talks.

On arriving in the U.S., Netanyahu will attend a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, set for 7:45 P.M. local time. Throughout the day, Clinton will also host one-to-one discussions with Abbas, the foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt, and Tony Blair, envoy of the 'Quartet' of Middle East peace negotiators – the United Nations, the U.S., the European Union and Russia.

At the same time, U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell will hold preliminary negotiations with Molcho to coordinate the summit's closing remarks, as well as discuss the planned speeches by Netanyahu, Clinton, and Abbas at Wednesday's opening ceremony.