JERUSALEM: Israel's prime minister reiterated on Thursday that there will be no freeze on Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem, as the US Middle East envoy arrived for talks to press the peace process.
"There will be no freeze on construction in Jerusalem," Benjamin Netanyahu told Channel Two television. "Everyone knows it." "There is perfect agreement on the fact that there cannot be preconditions to negotiations," he added, an apparent reference to Palestinian demands that settlement construction be halted before direct peace talks can resume.
He sought to downplay the chances of conflict on Israel's northern border, despite Israeli and US fears that Syria may be sending missiles to Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah movement.
"We do not want war. But weapons have been transferred to Hezbollah across the border between Syria and Lebanon, and this is unacceptable," he said.
Netanyahu spoke as US envoy George Mitchell arrived for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, which a US official said would take place on Friday. Mitchell is to meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah on efforts to relaunch peace talks with Israel, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said.Israeli government spokesmen would not immediately confirm whether Mitchell would also meet Netanyahu.
Washington has for months been pressing both sides to revive negotiations suspended in December 2008, but its efforts have hit a dead end over Israeli settlement construction in occupied and annexed east Jerusalem. On ties between the two staunch allies, Netanyahu said "we do not agree with the United States on everything. There are ups and downs... but the fact that our relations have a solid base allows us to overcome the problems."
Washington had managed to convince the two sides to engage in indirect talks that would be run by Mitchell, but they got sidetracked in early March after Israel announced plans to build 1,600 new homes in east Jerusalem. Israel captured the largely Arab-inhabited eastern part of the city during the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed it, claiming the holy city is its "eternal and indivisible capital."
The Palestinians want east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that there will be no halt to settlement construction there.