Settlement dispute hampers Mideast talks

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the U.S. Middle East envoy on Wednesday, but failed to reach a compromise over Israeli settlement construction in the Palestinian territories, according to their officials.

Obama close to breakthrough on resuming negotiations: report

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the U.S. Middle East envoy on Wednesday, but failed to reach a compromise over Israeli settlement construction in the Palestinian territories, according to their officials. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, shakes hands with U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell during their meeting in London on Wednesday. ((Amos Ben Gershom/Reuters))
Netanyahu and George Mitchell spoke for several hours in London after the Israeli leader met with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

U.S. President Barack Obama has urged Israel to halt all construction on settlements in the West Bank, saying it is an obligation under the U.S.-shaped road map toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu has so far rejected Obama's calls for a settlement freeze, maintaining Israel must continue some construction to allow for the "natural growth" of the settler population.

Speaking during a photo opportunity with Mitchell before their meeting, Netanyahu said he hoped peace negotiations would resume "shortly."

"The goal is a wider peace, which is our common goal," he said.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to restart peace talks until Netanyahu's government orders a freeze on all settlement construction on the lands the Palestinians aspire to have for a future state.

But a report in Wednesday's edition of the British newspaper The Guardian quoted unnamed U.S., Israeli and Palestinian officials as saying Obama is close to brokering an agreement between the two sides to restart stalled peace negotiations by the end of the month.

Central to the agreement, the report said, is a U.S. pledge to expand international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program to include its oil and gas industry. Israel and Western nations fear Tehran is trying to produce nuclear weapons and call the program an existential threat to the Jewish state.

In exchange, Israel would be expected to implement at least a partial freeze in settlement construction, the officials told the Guardian.

More than 280,000 Jewish settlers live among more than two million Palestinians in the West Bank, which is referred to by some Jewish religious and Israeli nationalist groups as the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria.

Palestinian officials and Israeli peace groups, along with much of the international community, have decried the construction and expansion of all settlements in the West Bank as illegal under international law — although Israel disputes this.