PM: Notable steps in US settlement talks

PM briefs gov't prior to Mitchell meeting; FM says Israel making sincere effort to reach understandings.

settlement ofra 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
settlement ofra 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Four days before traveling to London for a meeting with American envoy George Mitchell, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu held a meeting of his inner cabinet on Thursday night in which "significant progress" was reported in negotiations with the US over a settlement freeze. The ministers - Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor and Bennie Begin - were briefed on the negotiations by the prime minister's special emissary, Yitzhak Molcho, who just returned from talks in Washington. No details of the discussions were released. One of the sticking points has been the duration of a settlement moratorium, with Israel wanting it to last six months, and the US reportedly interested in a two-year halt. Israel has reportedly expressed a willingness to halt any new settlement projects for the duration of the moratorium, but wants to continue building some 2,500 units in the large settlement blocs during this period. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel Radio Sunday morning that Israel is making a sincere effort to reach agreements and understandings with the US. "We are not looking for fights with the US. I hope that we reach an agreement...I hope we will reach a Modus Vivendi but even this is uncertain. "Clearly we are investing serious effort into reaching understandings and agreements. Previous understandings must also be included in the new framework [of understandings]," he said. Meanwhile, less than a week before Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, the German Foreign Ministry has called the settlements "one of the biggest impediments" to Middle East peace. "We and our partners the Americans have made very clear that we see the settlements issue as one of the biggest impediments to a two-state solution," Reuters quoted German Foreign Ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke as saying. "There must be urgent progress on the settlements to make progress on Middle East peace." While there were signs that Israel was "thinking seriously" about its policies, "we don't have any definitive movement on the settlements question yet," Peschke added. A senior official in the Prime Minister's Office responded by reminding the German spokesman that "the current government has not issued a single tender for housing construction in the West Bank since coming into office." The official said the prime minister was "very much looking forward to the trip to Germany, and engaging with the German government. On the settlement issue, we will obviously articulate our position, which is that Israel is not building any new settlements, nor expropriating further land for the purposes of expanding existing settlements." The German comments were "disconnected" and without context, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said. "These statements are not part of any diplomatic negotiations, they are unrelated to reality and distort it." Merkel called on Israel last month to end settlement construction, saying it jeopardized efforts toward a two-state solution. "I think it is now important to get commitments from all sides, and that includes the issue of settlement building," she said in a speech to the Bundestag. "I am convinced that there must be a stop to this. Otherwise we will not come to the two-state solution that is urgently needed." Also in July, Ruprecht Polenz, the head of the German parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee and an ally of Merkel, said that Israel risked committing gradual suicide as a democratic state if it did not stop building beyond the Green Line. These statements were largely dismissed at the time in Jerusalem as part of a larger trend in Europe to jump on the American bandwagon and publicly dress down Israel over the settlements.