JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday he hopes to work out key policy disagreements with the U.S. during a series of meetings this week with high-profile American envoys.
Netanyahu is under heavy pressure to freeze construction in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem – a demand he has so far resisted. Washington also is concerned that Israel may be planning an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. It wants time for President Barack Obama’s offer of engagement to Iran to bear fruit.
“Naturally, in the context of friendly relations between allies, there isn’t agreement on all points, and on several issues we are trying to reach an understanding, in order to make progress together toward our shared goals – peace, security and prosperity for the whole Middle East,” Netanyahu said ahead of his Cabinet’s weekly meeting.
Later Sunday, U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell began talks with Israeli officials – the first of four U.S. officials set to visit this week. Netanyahu is also scheduled to meet Defence Secretary Robert Gates, National Security Adviser James Jones and top Iran and Mideast specialist Dennis Ross.
At a meeting with Israel’s defence minister in Tel Aviv, Mitchell described the differences with Israel as “discussions among friends,” and “not disputes among adversaries.” He said a “wide range of issues” were being addressed, but didn’t announce any breakthroughs.
The U.S. says continued Israeli construction on lands claimed by the Palestinians threatens to undermine future peace talks.
Israel says some expansion must be permitted to accommodate the “natural growth” of settler families.
Netanyahu also says Israel must keep building in east Jerusalem, which it captured and annexed in 1967 and sees as an integral part of its capital city. Nearly 300,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, in addition to 180,000 living in east Jerusalem.
In east Jerusalem on Sunday, Jews renovating a property in the Arab neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah scuffled briefly with Jewish and Arab opponents Sunday, police said.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said there were no injuries, but police separated the rival groups and detained seven people for questioning. Among them were Hatem Abdul-Qader, an adviser to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Police said the Jews working on the house had court-approved documents proving their ownership, but Palestinians said the empty building was the property of an Arab, Darwish Hijazi.
An official in the administration of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said starting the house renovation on Sunday was meant as an Israeli signal to Mitchell that Israel would not bend on east Jerusalem building.
“We will take legal action against them,” said Ahmed Rweidi, an Abbas adviser on Jerusalem issues. “All their claims are false.”
The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem as part of a future state. Encouraged by the tough U.S. stance, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to hold peace talks with Netanyahu until settlement activity is frozen.
While maintaining good ties with the U.S. is considered a key Israeli interest, Netanyahu faces pressure from inside his coalition not to accede to the U.S. demands.
“What has to be made crystal clear is that there’s no talk, no discussion, no negotiation over Jerusalem or what we do within the city,” Cabinet minister Uzi Landau said Sunday.
Also Sunday, around 40 Jewish hard-liners marched through an Israeli Arab town in a provocative move drawing hundreds of Arab counter-protestors.
The marchers included a Jewish lawmaker from an ultranationalist religious party. They said they wanted to highlight illegal construction by Arabs as a counterweight to criticism of illegal Jewish construction in West Bank settlements. An Israeli court ruled that the marchers’ right to protest was protected by law.
Hundreds of residents shouted slogans against the Jewish hard-liners. Some waved Palestinian flags.
The march through the township of Rahat ended without incident, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.