Israel Ministers Divided on Settlement Halt

Ministers who oppose 'temporary freeze' fear that it will set precedent, force Israel into permanent freeze.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak will meet in New York today with U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell in an effort to agree on a compromise formula on settlement construction. The meeting takes place in light of a recent disagreement among the "forum of six" ministers over this issue.

A political source in Jerusalem said Monday that a "temporary freeze" of construction in the settlements was met with objections by three of the six senior ministers in the forum.

Monday morning the forum, which includes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and ministers Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Moshe Ya'alon, met to agree on a position that Barak would then present to Mitchell.

Barak supported a formula according to which Israel would freeze settlement construction completely, except for projects that have already started, and would require U.S. guarantees on the future of the peace process.

A political source in Jerusalem said that Barak's position was countered by Lieberman, Begin and Ya'alon, who opposed his proposal. The three argued that "a temporary freeze" of settlement construction will create a precedent and may become permanent. "If we start it will be difficult to go back," the three said.

It is unclear what the positions of Netanyahu and Meridor were.

According to the three ministers opposing Barak, Israel must not propose a "temporary freeze" without a commitment for similar and equal concessions by Arab states and the Palestinian Authority, and as part of a broader package deal. Another argument put forth was that Israel must request guarantees from the U.S., so that it is not surprised by American initiatives without earlier consultation.

"We must explain to the Americans that we, too, have red lines," Deputy Prime Minister Ya'alon said during the meeting.

Nonetheless, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said Monday that "Israel and the U.S. will not enter a confrontation over the settlements. The shared interests are too strong and the joint aim is to work together and avoid a dead end."

During the meeting with Mitchell, Barak intends to present a more watered-down proposal, which will include a declared wish to resolve the settlements issue during negotiations with the Palestinian Authority over a final settlement agreement. Moreover, the proposal will be to limit new construction to the addition of stories to existing structures in the settlements, except for projects that have already begun.

Netanyahu has dispatched his special adviser, Isaac Molho, to the meeting between Barak and Mitchell. Molho met Mitchell last week but the formula he presented to the U.S. envoy was rejected. The failure of that meeting resulted in the cancelation of a planned meeting between the prime minister and Mitchell in Paris last week.

Prior to his departure Monday, Barak said that "the intimate and direct dialogue with the U.S. continues, and its purpose is to advance regional order. Within this framework it is possible to have effective and practical negotiations with the Palestinians, and within this framework it is also possible to find an appropriate solution to the issue of settlement construction."