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Barak-Mitchell Tackle Big Picture

Defense Minister Ehud Barak: 'Israel & U.S. Have Achieved Progress On Settlement Controversy'

'Settlement Issue Is Part Of Bigger Picture Of Peace With Arab World'

Arab Religious Delegates Refuse To Follow Iranian Walkout During President Peres's Speech In Kazakhstan

Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Photo: Amit Shabi)

After a four-hour meeting in New York, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and U.S. Middle East George Mitchell have reduced the gap over Israeli building in West Bank settlements. Interviewed on Israel Radio, Barak said the main thing was 'to put the settlement question in the wider context of peace between Israel and the Arab world'. In a new twist, Arab religious leaders refused to follow an Iranian delegate's lead and stayed to hear an address by President Shimon Peres at an inter- faith conference in the Islamic state of Kazakhstan.

'Israel is now closer to reaching a joint understanding with the U.S. on building at West Bank settlements' - that's the reaction of Defense Minister Ehud Barak after his meeting with American diplomat George Mitchell. However, that was not to say that Israel or the U.S. had given up their conflicting stands on Israel's policy of 'natural growth' in the settlements. Israel stood by its position on completing housing construction already underway. In Barak's view, the settlement issue had been blown out of all proportion.

Barak and Mitchell had discussed settlements in the wider context of regional peace between the Arab states and Israel

Barak and Mitchell had discussed settlements in the wider context of regional peace between the Arab states and Israel. In Barak's view, this was the key to moving forward. Now was the time to broaden the peace process and not to remain focused solely on settlements and the Palestinian border. In the context of a 'comprehensive regional agreement' it would be possible to discuss what the Arabs would also contribute and  not just Israel'. Barak reiterated Prime Minister Netanyahu's contention that it was also necessary to build the future Palestinian state from the 'bottom-up' by developing its economy, educational reform for peace and enforcing law and order (which also includes taking on the terrorists: something the Palestinian Authority  refrains from doing in a serious way).

As for Israel's building of housing units, Barak argued that most of them were being built in the large settlement blocs of Maale Adumim and Beitar Elite (that Israel has no intention of evacuating in a final agreement) and not in small isolated settlements ( that Israel would agree to evacuate). Barak recalled that Netanyahu had clarified that Israel would not build any new settlements nor expropriate land, but on the other hand 'Israel would not cut off oxygen to the settlers'.

The Defense Minister described American officials as 'practical people'  and he was optimistic that the settlement controversy could be resolved. In his view, obstacles such as the 'marginal importance of the of the settlements', should be considered in the bigger Middle East picture. (Senior Israeli officials have stressed that Israeli settlements in Sinai did not prove to be an obstacle to Israel's total evacuation for the peace treaty with Egypt. Similarly, Israel withdrew from every settlement in the Gaza Strip when former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally pulled out of the Gaza Strip in 2005.)

Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, after failing to forge a peace agreement after offering massive concessions to Yasser Arafat at Camp David back in 2000, has now opted for a broader regional solution that involves the so-called Saudi or Arab initiative. Although it does not bypass the Palestinians, it does give increased weight to the Arab states. Barak apparently has Prime Minister Netanyahu's backing for this gambit and he indicated that his approach did not fall on the deaf ears of George Mitchell.

The Iranian Missile Range

IRAN: A senior U.S. State Department diplomat has indicated the Obama  administration is having second thoughts about the proposed nuclear dialogue with Iran. Interviewed by Kuwait's newspaper al Qabas, Assistant Secretary Jeffrey Feltman said the internal unrest has made it more difficult to apply diplomacy in dealing with Tehran.  Feltman did not refer specifically to Iran's nuclear weapons program but that was obviously what he had in mind. Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has warned that trying to negotiate with the Ayatollahs was not only a waste of time but would also send the wrong message that 'the bad guys win'. Another Israeli official has said: 'Now is the opportunity for the U.S. to lead a new campaign for severe sanctions that will weaken the Iranian regime'.

'Is anyone in the Obama administration now ready to contend that the young Iranians who have taken to the streets did so because of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute?'

In any case, Israeli leaders are more convinced than ever that President Obama's attempt at linking a Israeli-Palestinian to defusing the Iranian nuclear threat has now gone by the board. (This was perceived in Jerusalem as overt and even well-nigh immoral pressure on the Jewish state that is menaced by  possible nuclear annihilation by President Ahmadinejad). As one Israeli official put it: 'Is anyone in the  Obama administration now ready to contend that the young Iranians who have taken to the streets did so because of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute?' This also applies to the mounting clash between the moderate pragmatists and Jihadist radicals throughout the Arab world. Moreover, there has also been a sharp example of the growing gulf between the moderate Arab Sunnis and the radical Shiite Iranians.

The Muslim state of Kazakhstan invited Israel's President Shimon Peres to an inter-faith  conference in its capital Astana. When Peres took the podium to deliver his address, the Iranian religious delegate walked out, expecting the Muslims, as they often do, to follow suit. However, no one else did;  they listened to Peres and applauded. Peres, who was given red-carpet treatment not only in Kazakhstan but also in Azerbaijan, later commented: 'The incident illustrated Iran's growing isolation in the Islamic world'.

David Essing

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