Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Sunday called the government's move to enforce a construction freeze in West Bank settlements an unprecedented step that proves Israel is serious about pursuing Middle East peace.
"This step was not carried out in the Olmert government or in the Sharon government, not in my government and not in Yitzhak Rabin's government either," said Barak. "The real significance is that for the first time, we are suspending all new construction for an extended period and therefore giving peace negotiations a chance."
Barak earlier Sunday ordered his ministry to urgently recruit and train construction supervisors to oversee the 10-month construction freeze in West Bank settlements, decreed by the cabinet last week.
Speaking to members of his Labor Party hours later, Barak said Israel would not allow its path to peace compromise the importance of security.
"Not one of us has deceived himself to think that once we declared this decision, the Palestinians would fall into our arms and renew negotiations," Barak said. "The road is long and there are difficult obstacles ahead, but we must make every effort to overcome them. Israel's main interest is the advancement of security and the political process - first on the Palestinian track and at the right moment on the Syrian track.
"The government knows the importance of direct negotiations, the need to act and not only dialogue, to take risks in order to arrive at a process that will yield two states to two people, to bring an end to the conflict, and to establish a Palestinian state without harming our interests," he added.
"I propose that every one of us close his or her eyes and ponder, if we weren't in the government... would a narrow rightist government be able to advocate for two states for two people, for a settlement freeze, and for the possibility of entering the political process?"
Settlers vow to defy construction freeze
Israeli settlers vowed on Sunday to defy a government crackdown on West Bank construction by laying cornerstones in communities across the territory.
Yishai Hollander, a spokesman for the settlers council, told The Associated Press there would be festive cornerstone ceremonies for new neighborhoods in multiple settlements in the next few days.
Meanwhile, the Yediot Ahronot daily reported that a councilman in the settlement of Ariel ripped up the order in front of military officials and said he would not accept it.
But with the beefed-up inspection effort, it appears unlikely the settlers will be able to do any substantial new construction in the coming months.
Fourteen construction supervisors are currently operating in the West Bank. Within two weeks, 40 new supervisors will be trained to begin working in the region and dozens more will be recruited down the line to enforce the construction freeze.
The Israel Police, the Border Police and the Civil Administration will all participate in the enforcement of the freeze alongside the supervisors, under the authority of the Israel Defense Forces.
During the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Vice Premier Silvan Shalom voiced his objection to the freeze, saying that it was "an unnecessary decision, which won't result in the relaunch of peace talks, and like [Netanyahu's] Bar Ilan speech will only serve to stiffen the Palestinian stance and solicit further demands from Israel."
Shalom was not present at the cabinet meeting at which the freeze was approved as he was in London on business. He said that he didn't know that the issue would be raised during the meeting that he had missed. "I don't think they tricked me. It was a legitimate decision, approved by a vote. However, I am against it."
He added that the Likud party has always supported settlements and therefore "a shift in ideology must be made through public discourse within the proper Likud institutions, and not the way it was done."
The Likud ministers convened ahead of the cabinet meeting to raise their objection to the settlement freeze. At the meeting, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan called the order to halt construction a "violation of human rights," and Information and Diaspora Minister Yuli Edelstein urged Netanyahu to meet with settler leaders as soon as possible and make sure that those harmed by the freeze are compensated. The prime minister asked cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser to schedule a meeting with settler leaders as soon as he returns from his trip to Germany, for which he leaves on Monday.
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