Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with US Middle East envoy Senator George Mitchell in London on Monday, for their second meeting in the space of a week.
The defense minister told Mitchell that "Israel is committed to evacuating the 23 illegal outposts within weeks or months."
Barak's entourage characterized the meeting, which lasted little over an hour, as positive, and said progress had been made on several issues – including clarifying the status of construction in existing settlements and Israel's willingness to enter negotiations with the Palestinians and other Arab nations in exchange for a normalization of relations.
"I think there is progress. There's still a way to go," Barak said. He added that he expects no imminent announcement on settlement building, a key issue in the talks.
Barak also told Mitchell that Israel expects to see trust-building gestures from Arab states, as well as Palestinian reciprocation for Israeli gestures. Israel is demanding, among other things, that the Palestinians acknowledge a future agreement as an end to the conflict, recognize Israel as the national home of the Jewish people, establish law and order systems, and provide an answer on the status of the Gaza Strip and Hamas.
The defense minister was accompanied to the meeting by Amos Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, and Yitzhak Molcho, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's envoy on Palestinian affairs. The meeting came as a preparation for the meeting between Mitchell and Netanyahu, which is expected to be held in the coming weeks. Barak himself will stay in London to meet with Foreign Minister David Miliband.
Barak, who last met Mitchell on Tuesday in New York, said he was optimistic about the chances of "preparing the ground for launching a major peace process."
A senior US official has been quoted as saying that Washington is asking Arab governments whether they might ease sanctions on Israel if it freezes settlement on land Palestinians want for a
"I think the Americans are active on this issue," Barak said when asked to confirm this. "While they are demanding from Israel steps and concessions in order to enable this regional peace effort to take off, they are approaching the Arabs as well and asking what they can contribute in terms of ... Starting normalization with Israel."
"We are looking and trying to find a formula (which) needs to show our readiness to be sensitive to the
needs of others."
Barak described the talks with Mitchell as "a very good, constructive discussion" and said they had addressed all aspects of the Middle East peace process including the Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese tracks.
He said they had discussed steps which could be taken to ensure "our slight differences regarding how to deal with the issue of settlements will ... Be clarified but within the
context of the need to push ahead the wider peace agreement."