U.S., Israel seek clarity on settlement freeze
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The United States wants Israel to impose a moratorium on new tenders for building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank but is considering allowances that could permit some projects already under way to proceed, Western and Israeli officials said on Wednesday.
U.S. President Barack Obama's blunt and public call for Israel to halt all settlement activity in the occupied West Bank opened a rare rift between the close allies.
But both sides say they want to work out their differences.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, in Europe next week to try to hammer out an agreement, Israeli officials said.
"That's our goal but we're not there yet," a senior Israeli official said.
Mitchell has said a key element has been trying to pin down exactly what Israel means by the "natural growth" of settlements that Netanyahu has said he will defend. Netanyahu says he wants growing families to be able to accommodate their children in towns that Israelis have built on occupied land.
While firm in demanding a ban on new tenders as part of an overall settlement freeze, Western and Israeli officials said the Obama administration was assessing in which cases continued building could be permitted.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said allowances for continued building could be made if, for example, a project in a settlement was nearing completion or for cases in which money has been invested in a project and cannot be reimbursed.
"There's room for some flexibility in defining what's acceptable in terms of a settlement freeze. Where do you draw the line?" the official said of deliberations within the Obama administration.
After meeting in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman stuck to their respective positions. Clinton called for a stop to the settlements and Lieberman -- himself a settler -- said Israel cannot accept a freeze in settlements.
But Clinton said discussions were just beginning.
"There are a number of critical concerns, many of which overlap in their impact and significance, that will be explored in the coming weeks as Senator Mitchell engages more deeply into the specifics as to where the Israelis and the Palestinians are willing to go together."
Mitchell travels to Paris on June 25 to meet with Netanyahu, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
The officials said the Obama administration has yet to agree to any exceptions, and stressed that Washington's stated goal of a total freeze in settlement activity, including building in existing blocs to accommodate growing settler families, known as "natural growth," would not change.
Mitchell said in Washington Tuesday of his meetings with Israeli and other officials: "There are almost as many definitions (of natural growth) as there are people speaking."
He added: "Different people have different interpretations of different phrases ... and we're trying to reach an agreement and understanding that helps us move the process forward."
Netanyahu has asserted that his government does not have the legal authority to stop building in cases in which tenders for new structures have already been awarded or when homes under construction have already been purchased.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat rejected any loopholes that would allow any building.
Yariv Oppenheimer of the Israeli anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now said the Jewish state was likely to use any U.S. flexibility to ramp up building on occupied land.
"In the past, every time there was an understanding, the outcome was Israel doubled the number of settlers in the West Bank," he said.
Some half a million Jews live among nearly 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territories which were captured from Jordan in 1967.
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