Monday, January 25, 2010

JERUSALEM | Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Sunday that Israel would retain parts of the West Bank forever — a statement that infuriated Palestinians and could complicate the year-old peace mission of a visiting U.S. envoy.

Mr. Netanyahu laid claim to disputed territory just hours after meeting with George Mitchell, the Obama administration’s Middle East envoy. Mr. Mitchell has been shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders since late last week in hopes of breaking a deadlock over construction in Israeli settlements.

“Our message is clear: We are planting here, we will stay here, we will build here, this place will be an inseparable part of the state of Israel for eternity,” Mr. Netanyahu proclaimed at a tree-planting ceremony celebrating the Jewish arbor day at a settlement just south of Jerusalem.

Mr. Netanyahu’s participation Sunday in tree-planting ceremonies in two West Bank settlements near Jerusalem were an apparent attempt to soothe Jewish settlers who vehemently oppose his decision — taken under intense U.S. pressure — to slow West Bank construction.

Both settlements lie within areas Israel wants to keep in any final agreement with the Palestinians.

“We are here and we will stay here and build here as part of sovereign Jerusalem,” he said.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said Mr. Netanyahu’s tree-planting Sunday undermined peace prospects.

“This is an unacceptable act that destroys all the efforts being exerted by Sen. Mitchell in order to bring the parties back to the negotiating table,” he said.

Contacts with the Americans would continue, he said, but a return to negotiations with Israel appeared unlikely anytime soon.

On the eve of Mr. Mitchell’s arrival last week, Mr. Netanyahu said Israel would want to retain a presence on the Jordanian border of the West Bank to stop weapons and rocket smuggling even if a peace deal is reached, in order to protect Israel’s heartland from militant attacks like those from Gaza. Palestinians rejected that as well.

The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, for a future independent state and say settlements undermine this goal. They have refused to resume peacemaking until all settlement construction stops, something Mr. Netanyahu has refused to do.

After his meeting with Mr. Mitchell, Mr. Netanyahu told his Cabinet he had heard “a few interesting ideas” on renewing peace talks. The U.S. official later left Jerusalem for another meeting later in the day with Mr. Abbas in neighboring Jordan.

In a meeting with Mr. Mitchell Friday, Mr. Abbas stood firm by his demand for a total settlement freeze.

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