Barak links settlement freeze to regional peace drive

Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Wednesday Israel would consider a limited moratorium on new construction in Jewish settlements, linking the step to United States efforts to bring Arab states into a broad peace process.

The offer, which Barak made in a Fox News interview, fell short of Washington’s call for a total halt to building in settlements in the occupied West Bank, a demand that has opened the most serious rift US-Israeli relations in a decade.

Barak said a construction freeze was ”part of a much wider issue, whether together with the United States and our Palestinian and Arab neighbours, we can launch an original peace initiative to be led by the president of the United States”.

Barak held talks in New York on Tuesday with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell in a bid to narrow the division with Washington over the settlement issue.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said US-backed peace talks with Israel could not resume until all settlement activity ceased on occupied land Palestinians want for a state.

”Of course there will be a discussion about the contingency that if a major peace initiative is going to be launched, we will probably consider a certain kind of an effective freeze on any new buildings for a limited time period,” Barak told Fox.

A joint statement issued after the Barak-Mitchell talks said ”steps by Arab states toward normalisation with Israel” and ”settlement activity” were among the topics discussed at the meeting.

In an interview with Israel Radio, he said he expected Washington to take a practical approach towards construction work in existing settlements.

Israel hopes to persuade the US to accept a continuation of existing building projects to meet the needs of the growing population in settlements the Israeli government hopes to keep in any future peace deal with the Palestinians.

”Do you think someone in [the US] thinks that pregnancies can be stopped or that nursery schools shouldn’t be built,” Barak asked.

Regional peace
Western diplomats said Washington wanted Arab states to let Israel open interest sections and to give permission to Israeli civilian aircraft to pass through their airspace.

But the diplomats said Arab states were resisting US pressure, demanding Israel first completely freeze settlement activity and take other steps to bolster the Palestinians.

Barak said the settlement issue, while important, would be ”put into the proper perspective” once efforts began to achieve broad Israeli-Arab peace beyond an Israeli-Palestinian deal.

Noting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had pledged not to build new settlements, Barak said the main point of contention with the US was ”what to do with buildings that are now under construction”.

Barak said Netanyahu would see Mitchell later this month.

Israeli media reports have said Barak planned to propose a three-month suspension of new construction in settlements, while continuing work on 2 000 buildings currently being erected.

US officials have been cool to a construction freeze that could expire in the middle of peace talks and prompt Arabs to pull out.

Mitchell did not take questions from reporters at the New York hotel where he held talks with Barak. — Reuters

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