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Defense Minister Ehud Barak does not support withdrawing from West Bank territory until the Iron Dome short-range rocket defense system designed to protect Israelis from Katyusha and Kassam attacks is in place in three to five years time, sources close to Barak said on Saturday night, confirming reports in the Hebrew press.
In Friday's Labor faction meeting, Barak denied a report in Yediot Aharonot in which he was quoted as saying there was no chance for a peace agreement with the Palestinians and that there was no difference between Fatah and Hamas.
Barak's associates rejected a headline in the report that said Barak's views were more to the Right than those of Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu. But the policies that he intends to implement are, however, meant to be to the Right of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
"He almost gave up the entire West Bank in the past, so he shouldn't become a hero to the Right, but he is realistic," a source close to Barak said. "Before any withdrawal from more territory, the antirocket system will have to be in place."
As defense minister, Barak's priorities include restoring the IDF's deterrence and its ability to defeat its enemies while keeping any battles on enemy territory and preventing damage to the home front.
His budget priorities to achieve those goals include the Iron Dome project, more modern defense systems that will allow fighting on more than one front and increased training for reserve soldiers.
In the Yediot report, which was based on an off-the-record conversation, Barak said Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas had not proven that he was in control of the West Bank, and therefore Barak as defense minister would not comply with Palestinian requests to remove checkpoints.
He was also quoted as saying the chances of a real peace accord resulting from Olmert's latest diplomatic push were illusory.
"Israelis have healthy intuition. They can't be fed more fantasies about an upcoming agreement with the Palestinians," he said, according to the report.
The Defense Minister's office released a statement calling the newspaper report "baseless," saying it made Barak's views seem far more extreme than they were.
"The defense minister remains committed to the diplomatic process, although his first commitment is to the security of Israel's citizens," the statement said.
Barak told the Labor faction he supported removing checkpoints as long as it would not jeopardize Israel's security. He said a task force was examining the issue on his behalf.
"I read in Yediot about a change in my opinion regarding the Palestinians, but here has been no change in my stance," he said. "We have the responsibility to strengthen Abbas and [PA Prime Minister Salaam] Fayad and we will do everything to make things easier for the Palestinians, [Quartet envoy] Tony Blair and the other mediators. We are interested in a peace process and ensuring the success of the upcoming American conference on the Middle East, but we are still being realistic, because our first responsibility is to the citizens of Israel."
Barak was criticized in the meeting by MK Ami Ayalon, who ran against him for the Labor leadership two months ago. Ayalon told Barak that if the Yediot report was correct, it was a serious problem for the party, which he believed has be presented as supporting diplomatic agreements with the Palestinians.
The statements Barak was quoted as saying drew praise from Israel Beiteinu, which "welcomed Barak to the party" and thanked him for adopting their views.
"Barak accepts today that there will be no dismantling of checkpoints, that there's no one to talk to, that Hamas are murderers," Israel Beiteinu MK David Rotem told Army Radio. "I suggest that they all begin to adopt our [stances]. We'll bring about a safe, peaceful and intact state."
Hadash MK Dov Henin, however, declared that "the new Barak only knew how to promise blood and tears - promises he would keep." Henin called Barak "Netanyahu's political double on both diplomatic and socioeconomic issues."
Meretz MK Ran Cohen advised Barak to "return to his former policy of silence before he does any more damage to the country."
AP contributed to this report.