LONDON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hopes to defuse an unusually public spat with the United States over West Bank settlements when he meets with a top U.S. envoy Wednesday morning.
Netanyahu said Tuesday before his meeting with George Mitchell in London that he wants an agreement that allows Israel to proceed with some settlement construction while at the same time restarting peace talks with the Palestinians.
But he also made clear he sees the spotlight on settlements as unfair and insisted the Mideast conflict is rooted in a deep Arab enmity to Israel that predates them.
Netanyahu's remarks came in a briefing to reporters after a meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown during his four-day trip through Europe. The subject of settlements is also sure to be raised at his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday.
The steadily growing settlements in the West Bank, which the Palestinians want for a future state, are home to 300,000 Israelis, making an Israeli withdrawal more difficult. The territory is home to some 2.5 million Palestinians.
The issue has come to overshadow Israel's ties with the U.S and much of the international community since March, when Netanyahu took power with a hardline government and President Barack Obama indicated that years of reluctant U.S. tolerance for settlement construction had ended.
Netanyahu's aides have been dropping optimistic hints in the past week, saying a compromise with the U.S. is growing closer and that peace talks could resume within two months, even floating the idea of a meeting between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the U.N. General Assembly in New York next month. U.S. officials have also suggested an agreement is within reach.
Abbas has so far refused to renew peace talks, suspended since former Israeli leader Ehud Olmert left office in March, before the Israelis stop building in the West Bank.
Netanyahu said Tuesday he was trying to hammer out an agreement with the U.S. Israeli officials have said one possible compromise could see the U.S. approve the completion of some 2,500 housing units now under construction while freezing all other plans.
"What we're seeking to achieve with the United States in the talks we've conducted, and will conduct tomorrow and will conduct after tomorrow, is to find a bridging formula that will enable us to at once launch a process but enable those residents to continue living normal lives," Netanyahu said, referring to Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
"Normal lives" is the phrase Israeli representatives have been using to refer to construction that allows for the growth of settler families.
Brown said he made clear in talks with Netanyahu that settlement activity was a barrier to Mideast peace.
"I am increasingly confident, however, that there is a genuine will to make progress, that a freeze in such activity would result in meaningful steps toward normalization from Arab states," he said. Obama has been pushing Arab countries to encourage peace talks by warming relations with Israel, an effort that has been inconclusive so far.
Though Netanyahu is pursuing, or being pushed into, some form of settlement compromise, he told reporters traveling with him that he sees the focus on settlements as wrong.
Netanyahu made clear that his view of the conflict is not of a disagreement that can be solved by straightforward steps – Israel dismantling its settlements, pulling out of the West Bank and allowing the Palestinians to rule themselves. He sees it as a phenomenon that must be viewed over decades, one with roots in a deep and possibly unalterable Arab opposition to Israel that would not be ended by an Israeli pullout. This was the "truth" about the conflict, he said several times.
The son of a prominent Israeli historian and the author of several books on history, peace and terrorism, Netanyahu became visibly enthusiastic when talking about history.
Netanyahu discussed at length his visit Tuesday to the London museum of the Palestine Exploration Fund, an organization that sent explorers on expeditions to the Holy Land in the 1800s to examine the physical traces of the Bible and Jewish history. He talked about the Arab invasion of the newly declared state of Israel in 1948 and the Arab "stranglehold" on Israel before the 1967 Mideast War, in which Israel captured territories that included the West Bank and Gaza. He touched on the construction of the first Jewish neighborhood outside the Old City of Jerusalem in the 19th century.
"The settlements have been turned into the root of the conflict, and that simply isn't the case," Netanyahu told reporters.
He said he had raised the point with Brown and would do so at his other meetings this week, with Mitchell and Merkel.