'U.S. won't yield on demand for settlement freeze'

The United States envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, reiterated on Tuesday that the Obama administration is adamantly insisting on a freeze of construction in all Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Haaretz reported.

Mitchell said that opposition to Israel's settlement policy has been Washington's position for the last 40 years, and that the administration had no intention of backing down on the demand for a total freeze.

In their meeting on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Mitchell: "Israel is acting to advance peace and security with the Palestinians and with the Arab world."

In his round of meetings with senior Israeli officials on Tuesday, Mitchell demonstrated a more moderate tack in discussing his government's disagreements with Jerusalem over West Bank settlements.

Mitchell assured Israel on Tuesday that Washington would remain its close ally despite differences over West Bank settlements and peacemaking with the Palestinians.

Mitchell said the U.S. commitment to Israeli security is unshakable, adding, "We come here to talk not as adversaries and in disagreement, but as friends in discussion."

The envoy made the comments with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side before a meeting with the premier Tuesday evening.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who dispatched Mitchell to the region, and Netanyahu are at odds over settlement expansion in the West Bank and the Israeli leader's reluctance to endorse Palestinian statehood.

Earlier Tuesday, Mitchell told President Shimon Peres his goal was to create conditions for "prompt resumption and early conclusion" of talks leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state "side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel".

"Let me be clear. These are not disagreements among adversaries. The United States and Israel are and will remain close allies and friends," Mitchell said. He later voiced the same sentim

Peres told Mitchell during their early afternoon talks that he believed that regional leaders had reached an historic moment in time, adding that neither sides would forgive themselves if they missed this chance for peace.

"I know that we must move along a corridor strewn with problems but there is also a great opportunity for peace," he said. "The sides must forgo the secondary problems and begin intensive negotiations for peace, in the framework of which I believe it will be possible to resolve most problems."

The president also called on the U.S. to continue negotiating over West Bank settlement construction, rather than focusing on it as a single contentious issue.

"There is agreement in Israel regarding the evacuation of illegal outposts and not to build new settlements," he said. "However, the issue of natural growth in the settlement blocs must continue to be discussed intensively in order to reach agreement."

"In my experience, focusing on a single issue ill serves the wider diplomatic process which is supposed to set the agenda for Israel and its neighbors," he added.

Later Tuesday, Mitchell met with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and the two discussed a range of issues, including the Iranian threat, the results of the election in Lebanon and the efforts to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The two also discussed the need for all the sides to fulfill their obligations - Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world.

Mitchell also met on Tuesday morning with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who helps oversee settlement policy, and was slated to hold talks with Netanyahu later in the day.

"We all share an obligation to create the conditions for the prompt resumption and early conclusion of negotiations," Mitchell added during the meeting with Peres.

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