Israel says it delayed Netanyahu meet with Mitchell

Israel Materials 24 June 2009 21:40 (UTC +04:00)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put off talks in Europe with U.S. President Barack Obama's peace envoy in order to prepare the issues more thoroughly, a senior Israeli official said on Wednesday, Reuters reported.

"It was the Israeli side that asked to defer the meeting with Senator (George) Mitchell," he told reporters travelling with Netanyahu in Rome.

"We wanted more professional work done on the issues by staff prior to the meeting with the prime minister," the official said, without specifying which issues were most problematic.

He denied Israeli media reports that U.S. officials took the decision because they were irritated by the Israeli government's refusal to drop its policy of allowing continued building activity in some Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The meeting between Netanyahu and Mitchell had been due to take place in Paris on Thursday and to focus on bridging differences over settlement expansion, Israeli officials said.

Instead, Defence Minister Ehud Barak will now visit Washington on Monday to meet Mitchell.

On Tuesday, a senior U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said: "Mitchell and the prime minister jointly decided to postpone their meeting." U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly confirmed the talks were postponed but had no comment on why it was important for Mitchell to see Barak first.

On Wednesday, as Netanyahu was leaving Rome for Paris, Israeli officials said Israel had initiated both the deferral of the meeting and the idea to send Barak to Washington.

They said the United States and Israel were seeking to achieve "understandings" on settlement building in occupied land, an issue that has delayed the resumption of stalled Middle East peace talks.

"The goal we have is to try to reach understandings with the (Obama) administration on settlements, and move on," one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Obama has called for a settlement freeze.

Netanyahu has said he would not build additional enclaves in the territory, captured by Israel in a 1967 war, that Palestinians seek for a state. But he wants to build further in existing settlements to accommodate what he calls "natural growth."