Defense Minister Ehud Barak
left for a visit to the US Monday afternoon, after a forum of ministers including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
decided not to freeze construction in West Bank settlements.
Barak will attempt to soften the US and EU's stance on the issue by proposing that the future of the settlements be determined during talks with the Palestinians.
On Monday six ministers including Barak, Netanyahu, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman met to discuss the issue of the settlements.
During the meeting Barak said an accord must be reached in order to prevent conflict with the US. The prime minister supported his view.
However Lieberman, together with ministers Benny Begin and Moshe Ya'alon of the Likud, said Israel should not compromise the future of settlements destined to remain within its borders.
Netanyahu and Barak said a decision on the issue could be delayed if Israel postponed discussion until talks with the Palestinians were underway. But the ministers were divided on whether preconditions should be determined before talks were started, or whether Israel should make gestures that would jumpstart the process.
Barak, who holds the latter view, said Israel should offer to temporarily freeze construction if this helped peace talks get underway. He said willingness to do so would alter Israel's "refusing" reputation.
The defense minister issued a statement saying "intimate" talks with the US were ongoing. "The talks with (George) Mitchell are a continuation of President Obama's speech in Cairo and Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech at Bar Ilan. Their aim is to promote the process of a regional accord in the Middle East," the statement said.
"Within this framework it is possible to hold efficient negotiations with the Palestinians. The questions regarding settlements can be solved in this dialogue."
Meanwhile, two Washington Post columnists have called on President Obama to relinquish his tough stance on the issue of the settlements.
Jackson Diehl, deputy editor of the Washington Post, wrote that "Obama began with a broad strategy of simultaneously pressing Israel, the Palestinians and Arab states to take concrete steps toward peace", but that this front had been "narrowed to a single point: a standoff with the Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu over whether 'natural growth' would be allowed in Jewish settlements".
David Ignatius wrote Monday that "the Obama team assumes that if it can pressure Israel into a real settlements freeze, the Arabs will respond with meaningful moves toward normalization of relations – which will give Israel some tangible benefits for its concessions".
He quotes a senior Arab diplomat whose stance negates these assumptions. "'What will I do in exchange for a settlements freeze? Nothing. We're not interested in confidence-building, or a step-by-step approach,'" Ignatius quotes him as saying.