By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak huddled for four hours yesterday with former senator George J. Mitchell, the Obama administration's special envoy for Middle East peace, seeking to resolve an impasse between their two governments over the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
President Obama has demanded that Israel fulfill a commitment in the 2003 "road map" peace plan for a full settlement freeze, including a halt to expansion to accommodate "natural growth." The Israeli government has responded with a series of counterproposals, including a temporary freeze with caveats, none of which the administration has accepted.
"We have not changed our position at all," a senior administration official said yesterday after the Barak-Mitchell meeting. "Nor has the president authorized any negotiating room."
An Israeli official who accompanied Barak to the meeting in New York characterized the talks as positive. He said a meeting between Mitchell and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, which was canceled last week, will probably take place this month.
Barak, the official said, emphasized to Mitchell the efforts he had taken in recent weeks to ease West Bank roadblocks and move against unauthorized settlement outposts, as well as plans for economic development and a regional peace agreement. "In this context, settlements are an issue, an important issue, but not an isolated issue," the official said.
U.S. officials view Israeli action on a settlement freeze as a way to break the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, leading to confidence-building efforts by Palestinians and Israel's Arab neighbors.
There are more than 120 settlements in the occupied West Bank that are legal under Israeli law but not internationally. The Fourth Geneva Convention, which Israel ratified in 1951, forbids an occupying power to transfer "parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies," but Israel disputes that this provision applies to settlements. Israel seized the West Bank and other territories in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.