The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, yesterday rejected any freeze on settlement building in East Jerusalem, a key US and Palestinian demand, as the US Mideast envoy arrived in Israel in a fresh attempt to relaunch peace talks. "There will be no freeze in Jerusalem," Mr Netanyahu told Israel's Channel 2 TV, reiterating a long-held position. The move could undermine the task of the US Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, who was making his first trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank since Mr Netanyahu met with US President Barack Obama in March.
At that meeting, Mr Obama had asked the Israeli premier to suspend settlement construction as a "confidence-building" measure to bring the Palestinians back to peace negotiations, which have been suspended since December 2008. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, called Mr Netanyahu's refusal to suspend settlement building "very unfortunate" and said he hoped the US "will be able to convince the Israeli government to give peace a chance by halting settlement construction in East Jerusalem and elsewhere."
Mr Erekat added that the Palestinians hoped Mr Mitchell would have the "right formula" for getting Israel to stop settlement activities. Palestinian officials said Mr Mitchell would be meeting with the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas today in the West Bank, in a fresh attempt to revive peace talks. There was no immediate announcement of a time for a Netanyahu-Mitchell meeting. Israel and the Palestinians had been set to launch US-mediated negotiations last month when Israel announced plans during a visit by the US vice president Joe Biden to build 1,600 homes in a Jewish housing project in East Jerusalem.
The announcement infuriated the Americans and the Palestinians put the negotiations on hold. Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war and immediately annexed it, and does not consider Jewish construction there to be settlement activity. * With additional reporting by the Associated Press