Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, yesterday called the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank a 'marginal' issue and hailed a US decision to stop efforts to achieve a construction freeze.
Netanyahu says West Bank settlements a marginal issue
TEL AVIV // Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, yesterday called the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank a "marginal" issue and hailed a US decision to stop efforts to achieve a construction freeze.
Mr Netanyahu's statements were likely to anger Palestinians, who view Jewish settlements as a key obstacle to the creation of their future state and who refuse to return to direct talks with Israel without a settlement moratorium.
The Israeli premier spoke hours before he was due to meet George Mitchell, the top US envoy to the Middle East, to discuss new ways of re-igniting the suspended peace process with the Palestinians.
Mr Mitchell is expected to convene today with Palestinian leaders, including Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and then travel to Cairo to meet with foreign ministers of the Arab League.
Mr Mitchell arrived in Israel a week after Washington announced that its bid to persuade Israel to implement a partial, three-month moratorium on settlements that was aimed at reviving face-to-face talks with the Palestinians came to naught. Washington is now expected to push for a return to US-mediated indirect negotiations.
Mr Netanyahu, in his first public comments on the failed US effort to clinch a freeze, said in an economic conference in Tel Aviv that Washington's decision was "good for Israel, good for peace".
"The US understood after a year and a half that we were in a pointless discussion about the marginal issue of building in settlements," he added. "The US has understood that what is important is to reach the real issues, including the core issues at the heart of the conflict between us and the Palestinians."
The White House's decision to drop its bid to pressure Israel on a settlement freeze appeared to be welcomed by Mr Netanyahu mainly because such a moratorium would have been fiercely opposed by many of the premier's allies in his predominantly pro-settler, right-wing governing coalition.
The Palestinians have expressed disappointment with the US's failure to persuade Israel to implement a settlement freeze and have questioned its role as an effective mediator. On Sunday, members of the central committee of Fatah, the secular movement headed by Mr Abbas, said they would reject any sort of negotiations with Israel unless a settlement moratorium was instituted.
Ahead of Mr Abbas's meeting with Mr Mitchell today, Yasser Abed Rabbo, a negotiator and an aide to Mr Abbas, said yesterday that any future talks should be based on clear terms of reference.
Mr Abed Rabbo said the Palestinians wanted their future state to be based on the borders that existed in the West Bank before the 1967 Middle East war.
The Palestinians also demand that Israel halt all settlement activities and that an international force be positioned in the future Palestinian state to guarantee its security, Mr Abed Rabbo said.
Yesterday, Europe looked set to re-affirm its readiness to recognise a Palestinian state at an "appropriate" time, opting to avoid tough action against Israel to break the Middle East impasse, Agence France-Presse reported.
Pressure has built on the EU to flex its muscle, with 26 former European leaders last week demanding sanctions, and Argentina and Uruguay joining Brazil in recognising an independent Palestinian state.