Benjamin Netanyahu's
Photo: Tsafrir Abayov
PM heads to Europe with backing for settlement freeze
Netanyahu to meet with British premier, US special Mideast envoy and German chancellor with apparent security forum majority in favor of halting settlement construction

Behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's optimistic statement suggesting peace talks with the Palestinians may reignite by the end of September, is the apparent silent assurance that Yisrael Beiteinu chair and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman will not extract his party from the coalition in the event Israel will comply with the US demand to halt all settlement expansion.


Should Netanyahu have to force the narrow cabinet forum to make a decision on the matter, and with Lieberman abstained on the vote, he would have a majority of four.


The six-man security forum includes Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Lieberman, Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Yaalon, Minister of Intelligence Services Dan Meridor and Minister Benny Begin. In case of a vote on ceasing settlement expansion, Netanyahu, Barak and Meridor will vote in favor of the move, while Begin and Yaalon are likely to object.


Earlier Sunday, Lieberman said that he would be "willing to give anyone who thinks they can find a diplomatic solution (to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) time to try." The foreign minister also said he "would not draw a line in the sand" over the settlements.


Prime Minister Netanyahu leaves for an official visit to Germany and the UK on Monday, and is likely to be urged, yet again, to freeze settlement construction and make goodwill gestures towards the Palestinians.


Wednesday will see Netanyahu meet with US special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell. The latter too, is expected to demand a one-year cessation in settlement expansion in the West Bank, in exchange for the US refraining form chiding Israel over the 2,500 housing units which are already under construction in the area.


Despite hectic discussions by the sextet's members, it is still unclear whether such an agreement can materialize, as Meridor, Lieberman and Yaalon are still unwilling to hear of such a construction freeze and the Palestinians have yet to announce they are willing to return to the negotiating table.


Another problem is that while Oman and Qatar have said that they are willing to consider normalization with Israel, providing it halts settlement expansion and resumes the peace process, Saudi Arabia has yet to allow east-bound commercial Israeli airliners to cross its airspace.


Another question which has yet to be answered is Israel's policy in view of the resolutions made at the Fatah Congress. Moreover, Israel doest not know how the Palestinian Authority means to deal with the situation in Gaza and Hamas, which Netanyahu and his cabinet believe to be a local Iranian hub.


Another question mark hovers over the US administration's involvement in the peace process: The government still does not know how determined the Americans are to pursue the Syrian avenue of the peace process, or how insistent they may be that such a move include the Golan Heights – at the expense of Israel.


Monday evening will see Netanyahu meet with the UK's top-10 leading newspaper editors, before meeting with Premier Gordon Brown in Tuesday. He will meet with Mitchell on Wednesday morning, before flying to Berlin. Netanyahu will meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday morning and is expected back in Israel later that night.


Sources in the Palestinian Authority confirmed that overtures meant to resume the peace negotiations with Israel have been taking place, but added that Israel's settlement policies would have to be clarified prior to any new round of talks.


Nevertheless, the sources said that even if the negotiations were reignited, the Palestinian Authority is not optimistic as to their success.


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