x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Netanyahu stands firm on issue of Jerusalem

The Israeli leader makes it plain that the question of East Jerusalem would not form part of any future peace talks with the Palestinians.

LONDON // Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, flatly ruled out any Israeli concessions over the occupation of East Jerusalem yesterday. After a meeting in London with his British counterpart, Gordon Brown, the Israeli leader made it plain that the question of East Jerusalem would not form part of any future peace talks with the Palestinians. Mr Brown backs the US president Barack Obama's call for a halt to the building of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories and attempts to hammer out a freeze on construction will continue today when Mr Netanyahu meets George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East.

But Mr Netanyahu made it plain yesterday that, were Israel to agree to a construction halt in the West Bank, he would not limit Jewish building in East Jerusalem. He said after his meeting with Mr Brown: "Jerusalem is not a settlement and Israel will not accept limits on its sovereignty there. "It is the sovereign capital of the state of Israel. We have been building in Jerusalem for 3,000 years."

Mr Brown, who recently said he was "appalled" by the eviction of Arab families from East Jerusalem, told Mr Netanyahu that, like the United States, he regards the settlements issue as a major barrier to the resumption of peace talks that ended with the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip in December. Nevertheless, at a press conference after the two had met, Mr Brown said he was "more optimistic" about the chances of achieving peace in the Middle East.

Stressing that he was a "true friend" of Israel, he nevertheless emphasised the importance in both sides being realistic in their efforts to secure a lasting peace. Mr Netanyahu, who had to be brought in the back entrance to Downing Street after more than 100 protesters gathered at the main entrance demanding "freedom for Palestine" and calling the prime minister a war criminal, insisted that Israel would only live alongside a demilitarised Palestinian state.

In many ways, yesterday's meeting between the two prime ministers was no more than a warm-up for today's main event when Mr Netanyahu will face Mr Mitchell across the negotiating table. While Mr Brown and Mr Netanyahu appeared to agree to disagree over the settlements issue, the pair found themselves in much closer agreement over the need to stop Iran becoming a nuclear power. Mr Brown said afterwards that he deplored Tehran's attitude towards Israel and said the UK shared concerns over the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

However, much of the press conference after the two men had met was dominated by demands by the British and US media that Mr Brown say something about the decision last week to free Abdel Baset al Megrahi. Mr Brown has remained curiously mute on the subject since Kenny MacAskill, the justice minister in the Scottish executive, decided to free al Megrahi, 57, who is terminally ill, on compassionate grounds from the life sentence imposed for the bombing of Pan-Am Flight 103, which came down on the town of Lockerbie in 1998, killing 270.

Breaking his silence on an issue that has caused so much outrage in the United States, Mr Brown said he was "angry" and "repulsed" at the reception given to al Megrahi when he flew back to Libya, but he refused to say if he agreed with the decision to release him. Mr Brown, who stressed his absolute commitment to fighting terrorism, said the UK government played no part in the decision to release al Megrahi and said he did not believe the issue would affect Britain's relations with the United States.

"I was both angry and I was repulsed by the reception that a convicted bomber guilty of a huge terrorist crime received on his return to Libya," he said. "When I met Colonel Qadafi over the summer, I made it absolutely clear to him that we had no role in making the decision about Megrahi's future. "Because it was a quasi-judicial matter, because it was a matter legislated for by the Scottish parliament and not by us, it was a matter over which we could not interfere and had no control over the final outcome.

"I want to make it absolutely clear, however, that whatever the decision that was made on compassionate grounds by the Scottish parliament, our resolve to fight terrorism is absolute, our determination to work with other countries to fight and to root out terrorism is total, and we want to work with countries - even countries like Libya, who have renounced nuclear weapons now and want to join the international community - we want to work with them in the fight against terrorism around the world."