Final preparations head of Barak-Mitchell meeting
Senior minister to meet scant hours before defense minister heads to US for brief visit Israel hopes will ease existing tensions with President Obama's special envoy. Barak expected to say freeze on settlements can only be part of genuine renewal of talks between Jerusalem, Ramallah
"The settlements will not be an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians." That is the message Defense Minister Ehud Barak will be carrying with him on his upcoming trip to meet with special US envoy George Mitchell. Barak is being dispatched in an attempt to dissipate the tensions between the White House and Jerusalem, and to allow the renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians.
Until now Israel has not given any sign to suggest it intends to acquiesce to the international demand that all construction in the West Bank be frozen, including within existing settlements.
Six cabinet ministers will meet on Monday morning to discuss the US and European demands to freeze the settlements, just a few short hours before Barak heads to meet Mitchell. The six ministers – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Minister Benny Begin, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon, and Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor – will meet in Netanyahu's office.
The government is leaning towards saying any move to freeze construction can only be part of renewed dialogue with the Palestinians.
Barak and Lieberman opposite Netanyahu and Ya'alaon (Photo: Dudi Vaaknin)
"This issue has yet to be fully discussed," the office of one minister slated to take part in Monday's meeting said. "It's clear to us that this is the American demand, and we will have to provide answers, but the process of examining the matter has not been completed yet. And aside from that, we must make sure that any gesture is not a unilateral Israeli gesture, which will be followed by further demands. The Israeli government will examine (the freeze), and of course this would be return for Palestinian gestures."
Barak is expected to tell Mitchell that Israel believes that freezing the settlements, deciding which settlement blocs will be kept by Israel as part of a final deal, and where the border will run – must all be part of detailed negotiations with Ramallah. The defense minister will tell Mitchell that Israel has no intentions of building new settlements, or expanding the existing ones beyond their current boundaries.
Barak will also emphasize other gestures Israel has recently made to show its intentions are serious, such as the removal of 140 roadblocks and the opening of numerous checkpoints from peripheral villages to main roadways in the West Bank – making it possible to drive from Jenin to Ramallah in an hour and half, and without passing through any obstructions. The US administration has already voiced its appreciation of the measures.
Barak will also discuss the transfer of security oversight to the Palestinian Authority in four West Bank cities – Ramallah, Jenin, Qalqiliya, and Jericho, and improvements to water and road infrastructure.