Netanyahu's Paris meeting with U.S. Mideast envoy called off

Thursday, June 25, 2009

PARIS -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's meeting in Paris with the top U.S. Mideast envoy has been called off in an apparent sign of growing friction over President Obama's call for a halt to construction in Jewish settlements.

The U.S. position could mean political trouble for Netanyahu, whose government depends on patrons of the settlers.

Netanyahu said Wednesday, after meeting the leaders of France and Italy, that his bid for a demilitarized Palestinian state is gaining international ground.

But French President Nicolas Sarkozy, like Obama, wants a complete and immediate end to construction in Jewish settlements and Netanyahu backed out of a potentially uncomfortable meeting in Paris with Washington's Mideast envoy, seeking more time to try and sidestep a confrontation with Washington.

A statement from Netanyahu's office said the meeting with George Mitchell, which had been scheduled to take place in Paris on Thursday, would be put off while Israeli Defense Minster Ehud Barak meets Mitchell in Washington next week and tries to bridge the gaps.

While the statement spoke only of the need to "clarify" unspecified issues, an aide traveling with Netanyahu said settlement was "one of the issues which needs to be worked on at the professional level."

As defense minister, Barak has intimate knowledge of settlements in the West Bank which are maintained under the watch of the Israeli military.

Netanyahu says he will not allow construction of new settlements nor allow existing enclaves to expand beyond their current boundaries but he is not prepared to stop building within existing communities.

The U.S. and France insist on an immediate and total halt to all forms of settlement construction.

Netanyahu has not said what solution he sees that will satisfy Washington without prompting rebellion from his right-wing political partners and the settlers who make up a major part of their supporters, but he says a compromise can be found.

"Can we reach agreement on the settlement issue? Yes, if there is a will," he told reporters in Rome Tuesday after meeting Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The Italian leader gave Netanyahu a warm reception at the start of his first trip to Europe since taking office in March, endorsing his plan for a future demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes Israel as a "Jewish state."

That means that Palestinians must give up any notion of refugees who left what is now Israel -- or their millions of descendants -- resettling in their former homes.

But he was restrained on settlement, saying only that Israel needed "to send signals" on stopping.

While Sarkozy took the harder line shared by Washington, Netanyahu said the French leader shared his view that for Israel to recognize Palestinian statehood, the Palestinians must also recognize Israel as the national homeland for the Jews and end once and for all their armed conflict with the Jewish state.

Speaking to reporters in Paris Wednesday, Netanyahu said that was a view that was gaining ground in the international community and its acceptance was a prerequisite for peace.

"The idea of a demilitarized (Palestinian) state will in course become accepted. If it is not accepted, there will not be an agreement," he said. "It cannot be that there is a Palestinian state and the struggle will continue within it."

Sarkozy agreed that a "future Palestinian state cannot in any way constitute a threat to the security of Israel."

The French president, who defines himself as a friend of Israel but whose country has traditionally good relations with much of the Arab world, urged faster action toward creating a Palestinian state.

Sarkozy, meanwhile, offered to send international peacekeepers to secure a Mideast peace deal. But Netanyahu brushed off the offer. "We're not looking for an international force," he said, adding that the only place such a force could have a role is on the Gaza-Egypt border.

On Thursday, Netanyahu meets French Prime Minister Prime Minister Francois Fillon and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner then flies home.

Associated Press writer Laurent Pirot contributed to this report.

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