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Netanyahu savours victory after US drops demand

By Yana Dlugy

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AFP, November 1, 2009


JERUSALEM Ś Israel's premier savoured a victory on Sunday after Washington hailed his "unprecedented" position on settlements and backed his call for peace talks to resume without the construction freeze sought by the Palestinians.

"There is no question that the United States are our staunchest friends and that Israel's firm stance on its positions pays off," Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon happily told public radio on Sunday.

Speaking before the weekly cabinet meeting, Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz proclaimed: "The US administration understands what we have always said -- that the real obstacle to negotiations are the Palestinians."

The Israelis had reason to be glib.

In a joint news conference held, unusually, before talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed for negotiations to be restarted as soon as possible, despite the Palestinian insistence -- which Washington backed only a few months ago -- that Israel must first put a stop to all settlement activity in the occupied West Bank.

"What the prime minister has offered in specifics of a restraint on the policy of settlements... is unprecedented," Clinton said at Saturday's press conference, adding that "there has never been a pre-condition, it's always been an issue within negotiations."

It marked a sharp easing of tone on the thorny issue. In May, following US President Barack Obama's first meeting with Netanyahu, Clinton had said that Obama "wants to see a stop to settlements. Not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions."

Israeli analysts said the change of tone came after Washington realised that its main ally would just not give in on settlements, supported by the vast majority of the electorate of Netanyahu's right-leaning government.

"The initial American position was totally unrealistic," said Ephraim Inbar, a political analyst with the right-leaning Bar-Ilan University. "They finally understood that this is what they can get and no more."

But the Palestinians warned the change in focus was bound to doom Washington's wider goal of getting a peace agreement to end their decades-old conflict.

"Israel should not be given any excuse to continue building settlements," said Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina. "This is the main obstacle in the way of peace."

Clinton's comments marked "a huge disappointment for the Palestinians with respect to the Obama administration," said Ziad Abu Zayyad, co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal and a former Palestinian minister and legislator.

"The Obama administration has proven once again that it is no different from previous administrations, because it will support whatever Israel accepts and will not support what Israel does not accept."

Clinton's visit came after months of shuttle diplomacy by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell failed to get Israelis and Palestinians to agree to resume peace negotiations that were suspended during the Gaza war at the turn of the year.

The Palestinians argue a settlement freeze is not their precondition but an obligation Israel undertook when it signed on to the 2003 international roadmap for peace plan.

Having watched the number of Israeli settlers more than double since the start of the Oslo peace process, the Palestinians argue negotiating without a freeze is pointless since during the talks Israel creates new facts on the ground that effectively eat away at the promised Palestinian state.

Abu Zayyad said the Palestinians cannot partake "in negotiations over land when Israel is changing the land and building on it and is deciding before the fact what the results of the negotiations will be."

"There is no point in continuing the negotiations while the settlements continue," he said. "If settlement activity is permitted then the negotiations will be absurd, without value, without justification and without results."

Copyright ę 2009 AFP.





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