AFP - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed with a key US envoy Wednesday that "meaningful" talks must start with Palestinians, but there was no sign of progress on the vexed settlement issue.
In a joint statement with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, the hawkish Netanyahu said Israeli and US officials will meet again next week in the United States to pursue efforts to revive the moribund peace process.
"The prime minister and George Mitchell agreed that there is a need to begin meaningful negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in order to move towards a regional peace agreement," said the Hebrew-language statement.
"The two also agreed that all sides should take practical steps to advance peace," they said after four hours of talks, adding: "Israeli officials will meet Mr. Mitchell again next week in the United States."
But after talks in London in which Netanyahu sought to relieve international pressure, there was no immediate sign of progress on the US call for a freeze on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The statement was issued at the end of the visit to London, during which Netanyahu also met British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and shortly before the Israeli leader left for Berlin where he will meet Chancellor Angela Merkel.
At the start of the talks with Mitchell -- renowned for his role in Northern Ireland's peace process -- Netanyahu said he hoped "we will shortly be able to resume normal talks" with the Palestinians, according to his spokesman.
Mitchell has pressed hawkish Netanyahu to freeze Jewish settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, where the Palestinians want to build their future state.
With the international community backing the US demand, the Israeli prime minister finds himself trying to placate intense diplomatic pressure while keeping together his right-leaning coalition government.
Briefing reporters travelling with him, Netanyahu said "the question of the settlements is a problem, but the main problem is the (Palestinian) refusal to recognise Israel as the Jewish state."
Netanyahu also said that "the common goal" was to end the decades-old Israeli-Arab conflict and reach regional peace.
Israel and US officials are eyeing a three-way summit between Obama, Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas next month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly to signal the relaunching of peace talks.
First launched in 1993, the talks were halted last December after Israel launched a military offensive in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
The Palestinians today condition the return to the negotiation table on a full Israeli settlement freeze.
Netanyahu has rejected a total freeze, insisting on the need to guarantee "normal life" in settlements which are home to 500,000 Israelis.
The Guardian newspaper in London reported Wednesday, however, that Israel was nearing an agreement on a partial settlement freeze in exchange for tougher international sanctions against Iran over its controversial nuclear programme.
Mitchell is trying to get Arab states to make gestures towards Israel.
According to officials, Netanyahu wants Saudi Arabia to open its air space to Israeli aircraft and to engage in low-level diplomatic ties.
Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad said the Western-backed Palestinian Authority plans to establish its own de facto state within two years, regardless of the peace process.