Mitchell calls off meeting with Netanyahu
Obama's special envoy to Middle East cancels meeting scheduled for Thursday with Israeli prime minister on backdrop of heavy dispute over West Bank settlements. Defense Minister Barak to visit Washington next week in bid to mediate. PM's Office: We were the ones to call off meeting
Defense Minister Ehud Barak is expected to leave for Washington for an unplanned meeting with Mitchell on Monday in order to mediate.
The Prime Minister's Office. however, clarified Wednesday morning that Israel was the one to cancel the meeting.
According to a senior official on Netanyahu's entourage to Rome, "Israel is the one that called off the meeting with Mitchell due to the need to collect data and present them to him in an organized manner. The claim that the Americans canceled the meeting due to a disagreement is unfounded."
According to the official, "The French confirmed this yesterday in a preparation talk ahead of the prime minister's arrival, and said that the Americans informed them that Mitchell would not arrive following an Israeli request."
US State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly said that Mitchell's meeting with Netanyahu had been cancelled in order to give the special envoy an opportunity to meet with Barak. He added that Washington hoped to advance discussions on a variety of issues during Monday's meeting.
The defense minister, who has become the unofficial mediator between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration, visited the United States in early June and met with Mitchell for a prolonged meeting in New York.
Barak also met with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Advisor Jim Jones at the White House, and was surprised by President Barack Obama who joined the meeting.
The defense minister left Washington with the feeling that an understanding could be reached with the Americans on the "natural growth" in the settlements, in order to create an American-Israeli mechanism for solving problems related to the settlers' real needs.
PM to insist on 'natural growth' needsPrime Minister Netanyahu will meet Wednesday with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and is expected to continue insisting on construction in the settlement blocs for "natural growth" needs.
The only formula the Americans are willing to accept, however, is a complete freeze of all construction, including in the Jerusalem vicinity.
The State Department spokesman reiterated the American stance on Tuesday, saying that Washington objected to any construction activity in the settlements. He said that all sides were committed to help create the conditions for significant negotiations which could be completed quickly.
Kelly added that the US believed the settlement activity must be halted in accordance with the Road Map, and that the issue was being discussed with the Israeli government.
Last week, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman clashed with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the settlement issue. During a meeting in Washington, Lieberman made it clear that Israel did not plan to freeze the construction of settlements due to "understandings reached with the previous administration."
Clinton replied that Washington wanted to see a stop to settlements, adding that there had been no written or oral understandings between Israel and the Bush administration.
Roni Sofer contributed to this report