Barak: Too early to declare Israel settlement freeze
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Tuesday after talks with the U.S. Middle East envoy that it was too soon to say whether Israel would freeze West Bank settlements as demanded by President Barack Obama, Reuters reported.
Barak said the talks with envoy George Mitchell, which lasted over four hours, were "positive" but that there are still "differences."
In a rare rift between Israel and the United States, Obama is pushing for a building freeze in a bid to spur the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Asked whether Israel would declare a temporary settlement building freeze, Barak said: "I think that it's a little bit too early to predict.
"We are considering every positive contribution Israel can make towards the taking off of a significant important peace effort," he said.
Barak said a meeting between Mitchell and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was being arranged in the next one to three weeks. The two had planned a meeting in Paris last Thursday but it was put off by Israel, which said it needed more time to prepare.
Israel's biggest newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported on Sunday that Barak would propose a three-month halt to construction starts in settlements but allow current building work to continue.
Barak said the talks were not mired down by the settlements issue. "I don't think we are stuck, I don't think we are stuck now. We are continuing talks on a wide variety of subjects, to clarify things and reach understandings," he said.
"The talks were positive and in a good atmosphere, even though there are still differences," he added.
Barak said the talks with Mitchell covered a wide range of issues, including a U.S.-led regional peace initiative which "we will support full-heartedly."
One Israeli official with knowledge of Monday's meeting told Reuters Israel was not giving details of the talks, but added: "I can say that this meeting was definitely positive and that an agreement (over differences) could be within reach."
"This is a protracted process and each side is learning to appreciate the other's point of view," the official said.
A joint statement from the two nations was expected later on Tuesday.
Mitchell, who posed for photographers at the start of the meeting in a New York hotel, did not take questions.
On Monday Israel approved construction of 50 new homes at a West Bank settlement as part of a larger development, an expansion that would defy the U.S. call for a building freeze.
Barak said these new homes were related to the dismantling of a settlement that "allegedly is on a Palestinian ground."
The Defense Ministry submitted an affidavit to Israel's Supreme Court outlining plans to relocate settlers from Migron, an outpost built in the West Bank without Israeli government permission, to the settlement of Adam, north of Jerusalem.
"There are certain questions still under discussion in our courts whether this is really the case. But if it will be found this way we agreed on a solution to this issue by removing the settlement to (an)other place. I hope that when the time comes we will be able to complete it in a benign way," Barak said.
Netanyahu has said he would allow some construction to continue to match population growth within existing settlements.