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Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu cancels meeting with US envoy

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's meeting in Paris with the top US Mideast envoy has been called off in an apparent sign of growing friction over President Barack Obama's call for a halt to construction in Jewish settlements.

The US position could spell political trouble for Mr Netanyahu, whose government depends on patrons of the settlers.

Mr Netanyahu said yesterday, after meeting the leaders of France and Italy, that his bid for a demilitarised Palestinian state is gaining international ground.

But French President Nicolas Sarkozy, like Mr Obama, insisted on a complete and immediate end to construction in Jewish settlements and Netanyahu backed out of a potentially uncomfortable meeting in Paris with Washington's Mideast envoy, seeking more time to try and sidestep a confrontation with Washington.

A statement from Mr Netanyahu's office said the meeting with George Mitchell, which had been scheduled to take place in Paris today, would be put off while Israeli Defence Minster Ehud Barak meets Mr Mitchell in Washington next week and tries to bridge the gaps.

While the statement spoke only of the need to "clarify" unspecified issues, an aide travelling with Mr Netanyahu said settlement was "one of the issues which needs to be worked on at the professional level."

As defence minister, Mr Barak has intimate knowledge of settlements in the West Bank which are maintained under the watch of the Israeli military.

Mr Netanyahu says he will not allow construction of new settlements nor allow existing enclaves to expand beyond their current boundaries but he is not prepared to stop building within existing communities.

The US and France insist on an immediate and total halt to all forms of settlement construction.

Mr Netanyahu has not said what solution he sees that will satisfy Washington without prompting rebellion from his right-wing political partners and the settlers who make up a major part of their supporters, but he says a compromise can be found.

"Can we reach agreement on the settlement issue? Yes, if there is a will," he told reporters in Rome on Tuesday after meeting Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The Italian leader gave Mr Netanyahu a warm reception at the start of his first trip to Europe since taking office in March, endorsing his plan for a future demilitarised Palestinian state that recognises Israel as a "Jewish state."

That means that Palestinians must give up any notion of refugees who left what is now Israel - or their millions of descendants - resettling in their former homes.

But he was restrained on settlement, saying only that Israel needed "to send signals" on stopping.

While Mr Sarkozy took the harder line shared by Washington, Mr Netanyahu said the French leader shared his view that for Israel to recognise Palestinian statehood, the Palestinians must also recognise Israel as the national homeland for the Jews and end once and for all their armed conflict with the Jewish state.

Speaking to reporters in Paris yesterday, Mr Netanyahu said that was a view that was gaining ground in the international community and its acceptance was a prerequisite for peace.

"The idea of a demilitarised (Palestinian) state will in course become accepted. If it is not accepted, there will not be an agreement," he said. "It cannot be that there is a Palestinian state and the struggle will continue within it."

Mr Sarkozy agreed that a "future Palestinian state cannot in any way constitute a threat to the security of Israel."

The French president, who defines himself as a friend of Israel but whose country has traditionally good relations with much of the Arab world, urged faster action toward creating a Palestinian state.

Mr Sarkozy, meanwhile, offered to send international peacekeepers to secure a Mideast peace deal. But Mr Netanyahu brushed off the offer. "We're not looking for an international force," he said, adding that the only place such a force could have a role is on the Gaza-Egypt border.

Mr Netanyahu meets French Prime Minister Prime Minister Francois Fillon and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner today before flying home.

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