Josef Federman
The Statesman
October 31, 2010 - 12:00am

JERUSALEM — Israel's prime minister said Sunday he will head to the U.S. next week to discuss Mideast peace talks with Vice President Joe Biden, in a possible sign of movement for the troubled diplomatic process.

Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in late September over renewed Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, and U.S. and Israeli officials have been working feverishly since then in hopes of finding a formula to revive the negotiations.

Announcing the trip to his Cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu gave no indication on whether the sides were any closer to a breakthrough.

"I will discuss with them a series of issues, including — of course — the resumption of the diplomatic process in order to reach a peace agreement with security for the future of the state of Israel," he said.

President Barack Obama will be in Asia when Netanyahu visits, so the Israeli leader will meet with Biden instead. The meeting is to take place in New Orleans, where both men are scheduled to address a conference of Jewish American leaders.

Obama has made Middle East peace a focus of his foreign policy agenda, and he personally launched the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks, the first in nearly two years, on Sept. 2.

But the negotiations quickly stalled after the expiration of an Israeli slowdown on construction in West Bank settlements, throwing into question Obama's ambitious target of brokering a peace deal by September 2011.

Netanyahu says the 10-month slowdown, which expired on Sept. 26, was a one-time gesture meant to draw the Palestinians to the negotiating table. He has refused to renew the moratorium, and construction has already begun on some 600 homes throughout the West Bank.

Population growth among Jewish settlers in the West Bank was more than double the rest of the Israeli population in the first half of 2010, according to statistics released by Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics.

From January to June, the Jewish settler population rose 7,200 to 303,900. This year's growth is projected at 4.8 percent, compared to 1.8 percent growth expected for the general Israeli population.

Previous statistical reports have shown that most settler growth is attributable to births, not to people moving to the settlements. The current report gave no breakdown.

The Palestinians say there is no point in negotiating if Israel continues to build on the territories Palestinians claim for their future state. Netanyahu said last week that settlement construction would not affect the eventual peace map.

The U.S. has been trying to persuade Israel to renew the settlement curbs by offering a package of security or diplomatic guarantees. But so far, an acceptable formula hasn't been reached.

The 22-member Arab League is set to meet in mid-November to determine with the Palestinians whether the talks should continue.

Netanyahu heads to the U.S. next Sunday in the wake of what authorities say was a failed attempt by al-Qaida operatives in Yemen to send a pair of bombs to Chicago-area synagogues.

"We are facing a wave of extremist Islamic terror that is increasing, both in the breadth of its attacks and in the brazenness of directing it to the nations of the world — and also of course in the growing number of weapons provided by global terror leaders," he said.

Netanyahu told his Cabinet that one of the central themes of his address in New Orleans would be "the steps that the cultured world, the free world, need to take to stop this wave that is threatening all of us."


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