Netanyahu Stakes Claim To West Bank Settlement

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JERUSALEM (AP) – The prime minister says he believes Israel will retain parts of the West Bank forever.

Benjamin Netanyahu made the comments on Sunday, shortly after meeting the visiting U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell. Mitchell has been pressing Israel to halt settlement construction in the West Bank.

At a tree-planting ceremony at settlement outside of Jerusalem, Netanyahu told the audience “this place will be an inseparable part of the state of Israel forever.”

The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank for a future independent state and say settlements undermine this goal.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

JERUSALEM (AP) – The Obama administration’s Mideast envoy pressed on Sunday with a sputtering year-old peace mission, shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in hopes of breaking a stubborn deadlock over Israeli settlement construction.

Last year, President Barack Obama took office with the ambitious aim of putting Mideast peacemaking on a fast track. Instead, the peace mission led by U.S. envoy George Mitchell has stalled over Israel’s settlements on occupied lands and the Palestinians’ refusal to return to peace talks.

In turn, that has forced Obama to acknowledge he underestimated the domestic political forces at play in the region and overreached in expecting a quick breakthrough.

Mitchell met for a second time with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, and was scheduled to sit down again with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later in the day in the Jordanian capital, Amman. He arrived in the region late last week.

Following his Sunday morning meeting with Mitchell, Netanyahu told his Cabinet he had heard “a few interesting ideas” on renewing peace talks.

“I expressed my hope that these new ideas will allow the renewal of the (negotiating) process,” he said. He did not give any details.

In an earlier meeting with Mitchell on Friday, Abbas stood firm by his demand that Israel freeze all construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem before he resumes talks. Netanyahu has agreed to slow construction in the West Bank, but has not ended it. He hasn’t put any limits on building in east Jerusalem, which is home to sacred Jewish, Muslim and Christian sites.

Israel annexed east Jerusalem shortly after capturing it and the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war. The international community, however, does not recognize the land claim and the Palestinians want east Jerusalem for their future capital.

Later Sunday, Netanyahu was to take part in tree-planting ceremonies in two West Bank settlements celebrating the Jewish arbor day – an apparent attempt to soothe Jewish settlers who vehemently oppose his decision to slow West Bank construction. Both settlements lie within areas Israel wants to keep in any final agreement with the Palestinians.

The Israeli leader heads a coalition largely opposed to the sweeping territorial concessions that would be necessary to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians. He himself had long refused to endorse the concept of Palestinian statehood, doing so only in June under intense U.S. pressure.

The Palestinians fear that Washington’s inability to get Israel to even temporarily freeze settlement construction forecasts doom for Israeli concessions on tougher issues like partitioning Jerusalem.

Abbas is also worried his already battered standing among the Palestinian people would suffer further if he resumes talks without at least a settlement freeze.

The Palestinian leader is locked in a fierce rivalry with Islamic Hamas militants who overran the Gaza Strip in 2007 and believe only violence, not negotiations, will pressure Israel to yield war-won land.

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