By Barak Ravid, Natasha Mozgovaya and Jack Khoury
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday accepted an invitation extended by the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East to meet with President Barack Obama in Washington this week.
Netanyahu is set to leave for the United States on Sunday evening and is expected to meet Obama on Tuesday, said government spokesman Mark Regev.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak met visiting U.S. envoy George Mitchell earlier Sunday in Jerusalem, for talks in which both emphasized their commitment to reaching direct negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
Following their meeting, Barak declared that the indirect “proximity” talks mediated by the United States must be begin quickly.
“It is our hope that indirect talks get started right away and will lead to direct talks as soon as possible,” Barak said at the close of the meeting. “I hope that Mitchell’s efforts here, in Ramallah, and in capital cities across the world will indeed produce this result.”
Mitchell emphasized the strength of the relationship between Israel and the U.S. and added the importance that Israel’s security will not be undermined
Mitchell said that the U.S. and Israel’s common goal is to renew negotiations, eventually arriving at direct talks with the goal of ending the conflict and solving core issues with a permanent agreement.
Also on Sunday, Netanyahu announced that he had informed the Obama administration that his government’s policy on building in Jerusalem remains unchanged, but that he would make several goodwill gestures toward the Palestinians.
“Our policy on Jerusalem is the same policy followed by all Israeli governments for the 42 years, and it has not changed. As far as we are concerned, building in Jerusalem is the same as building in Tel Aviv,” Netanyahu said.
“I believed it would be of great importance for these things not to remain in the context of commentary or speculation. I subsequently wrote a letter, at my own initiative, to the secretary of state so that things would be crystal clear.”
Netanyahu added that he informed the Obama administration that the proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians must address concerns from both sides but that “in order for agreements to be reached, there must be serious and direct talks.”
However, Netanyahu has bowed to U.S. demands and promised the Obama administration that Israel will make several goodwill gestures toward the Palestinians ahead of his trip to Washington on Sunday night.
For the first time since Operation Cast Lead, Israel has agreed to ease the blockade on the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu has also agreed to discuss all core issues during the proximity talks, with the condition of reaching final conclusions only in direct talks with the PA.
Netanyahu responded to Washington’s demands during his telephone call with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday night. Clinton said on Friday that Netanyahu’s response “was useful and productive, and we’re continuing our discussions with him and his government”.
The prime minister refused to revoke a decision to build 1,600 Jewish homes in Ramat Shlomo in East Jerusalem – the cause of a diplomatic row erupted during a visit to Israel by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden two weeks ago – or freeze construction beyond the Green Line in the city. He did, promise a better oversight system to prevent such embarrassing incidents in the future, however.
Senior officials in Jerusalem said that the prime minister’s gestures enabling the UN to transport construction materials to Gaza to rebuild sewerage systems, a flour mill and 150 apartments in Khan Yunis.
Netanyahu also agreed to release hundreds of Fatah-affiliated prisoners as a gesture to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, a move which the defense establishment believes could prompt the release of captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.
The prime minister is scheduled to leave for Washington Sunday night with Defense Minister Ehud Barak to attend the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington. Opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni and Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau will also attend the convention.
Netanyahu is slated to address the convention tomorrow at 7 P.M. Israel time before then meeting Clinton, who is also to speak at the AIPAC gathering.
Israel’s Washington envoy Michael Oren said on Saturday that outsiders cannot force peace on the Middle East, and any final settlement will have to be initiated by the Israelis and Palestinians themselves.
In an interview with U.S. television station PBS, Oren said Israel was not interested in having the White House present its own peace plan. Any attempt by the United States to impose a peace deal would be like “forcing somebody to fall in love,” Oren said.
Asked if Israel wanted Washington to present its own peace plan, Oren said: “No. I think peace has to be made between two people sitting across a table. America can help facilitate that interaction.”
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