Israeli, US officials huddle in UK over settlements, Iran

Barak: Dialogue with US will have 'peaks and valleys.'

Six days after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu returned from Washington, he dispatched a team of confidants to London on Tuesday for talks with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell that are expected to focus on Iran and a looming clash over settlement construction. The Israeli team is headed by Intelligence Services Minister Dan Meridor, National Security Adviser Uzi Arad, and Netanyahu aid Yitzhak Molcho, who is in charge of the Palestinian diplomatic file inside the Prime Minister's Office. Both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have made it clear since the PM's return from the US last Wednesday that Israel is committed to removing 26 unauthorized West Bank outposts. However, there is still deep disagreement with Washington over whether a "settlement freeze" - which is what the US has called for - includes a cessation on building in existing settlements to accommodate natural growth. US President Barack Obama, in his meeting last week with Netanyahu, said, "Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward." While US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said unequivocally last week, in an interview with Al-Jazeera, that a freeze did include "natural growth," the Netanyahu government's position - as expressed clearly at Sunday's cabinet meeting - was that Israel would not stop such construction. One senior government official said Jerusalem felt that if it made clear to the Americans that it would remove outposts, not build new settlements, not expropriate any Palestinian land, and not give incentives to people to live in the settlements, then the Obama administration would not pressure Israel to stop any building beyond the Green Line, even for natural growth. This may, however, be "wishful thinking," as the US is continuing to signal to Israel that its formulation of removing outposts won't be sufficient to stave off calls for a complete settlement freeze. "The road map commits Israel to dismantling outposts erected since March 2001 and freezing all settlement activity, including natural growth," noted one State Department official on Tuesday, adding that the US expected Israelis to "live up to their obligations." In any case, Israel continued to signal to the US on Tuesday that it was serious about removing the 26 illegal outposts, which are home to a total of some 1,200 people. One senior official said that the removal of the outposts would begin in a matter of weeks and be done within months. It would not, he said, begin in a matter of months and be done in a matter of years. Barak said Netanyahu's visit to Washington last week marked the beginning of the dialogue with the new US administration, and that this dialogue would take time and be marked by "peaks and valleys." "We must remember, and find a way to make it clear to the Americans, that there is not a direct connection between the outposts and Iran," Barak said at a briefing in his Tel Aviv office with reporters. "It is not as if the minute that the last outpost is removed - outposts that need to be removed because of issues relating to the rule of law and the authority of the state over its citizens - the Iranians will abandon their nuclear aspirations. These things do not have to be directly linked to one another." The hope was that the outposts would be removed through dialogue with the settlers, Barak said. "But in the event that we cannot reach an understanding with the settlers, we will not be deterred from using reasonable force to implement the country's authority over its citizens and enforce the law speedily and effectively." Barak is scheduled to travel to the US next week for a meeting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other top officials. Reiterating what Netanyahu said a day earlier when talking about the need to remove the outposts to preserve close ties, Barak termed the strategic relationship with the US "an anchor." "Coordination with the US, our strategic relationship with the US, and maturely coping with the challenges are all necessary conditions for Israel's foreign policy," the defense minister said. Barak said it was necessary to find a way to say "yes, but," to the US once the new administration developed its Middle East policy, and not say "no," or "no, but." A policy built on the road map and that included a comprehensive regional agreement was something that Israel could accept, he said. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Tuesday also came out in favor of the road map, even though its ultimate goal is a Palestinian state, and reiterated the need for a comprehensive Israeli stance on regional issues. "We need to have an inclusive outlook and to progress gradually and with caution," he stressed. "What is important is the Israeli approach, not the American one. We must have a clear message for the Israeli public and the international community. There is currently no clear message as to where Israeli policy is headed." Netanyahu, Lieberman went on, "doesn't rule out the road map, which also has international validity, having been accepted by the US and the United Nations Security Council." Turning to Iran, Barak said Israel was not in a position where it could tell the US whether or not to hold a dialogue with Teheran. "We can only express our position, which is that any dialogue should be limited in time, and that in parallel, widespread and effective sanctions should be prepared that would include financial sanctions and sanctions on refined oil products imported by Iran." The chance of the US engagement with Iran succeeding was "very low," Barak said. The Americans understand this, "but they think there is logic in this dialogue. If it doesn't succeed, they will need to deal with the significance in the future." He added that "as far as we are concerned, Israel is not taking any option off the table. We mean what we say, and we recommend to others to act as we do." Regarding North Korea's recent nuclear test, Barak said that "words, declarations and sanctions don't stop rogue regimes from endangering world peace. This test was a warning sign and a message to the world to wake up." Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.