JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to defend the expansion of West Bank settlements, during his planned meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Tuesday, Netanyahu’s spokesperson said Monday.
“You have never heard the prime minister say he would freeze settlement building. The opposite is true,” Nir Hefetz told Army Radio when asked about the tripartite summit, which was to take place on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
The meeting was seen in Israel as a success for Netanyahu, who has refused to agree to a demand from the United States and the Palestinians for a total halt to West Bank settlement construction. The Palestinians say the meeting will not constitute negotiations, since Abbas has refused to hold peace talks with Netanyahu until Israel freezes settlement construction.
The tripartite meeting was to take place Tuesday at 11 a.m. at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. Prior to the joint meeting between the three leaders, Obama was scheduled to meet with Abbas and Netanyahu separately. The U.S. president was to make a last-ditch effort to pressure the two to move toward a compromise agreement that could lead to an announcement of the resumption of peace talks.
A source in the Prime Minister’s Office said it has been agreed with the U.S. administration that the meeting will not include any negotiations, but the leaders will review developments in the situation. Moreover, the Israeli sources said it was agreed that there would be no preconditions to the meeting, which the source insisted is an Israeli “victory.”
Netanyahu was also scheduled to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and he is to address the General Assembly on Thursday afternoon. In his speech, he will focus on the need for international action to stop Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu has described his address as “dramatic.”
Meanwhile, Defence Minister Ehud Barak said in comments published Monday that the Palestinians are likely to miss a chance for statehood because of their intransigence.
“I fear the Palestinians are going to miss a huge opportunity,” the New York Times quoted Barak as saying, in an article published the day before the meeting in New York.
“There is a president who says determinedly, ‘I am going to put my political capital into making sure there is an independent Palestinian state and solve all the core issues in two years.’ If we bear in mind Israel’s security needs and the demand that a final agreement means an end to the conflict, this is an opportunity that must not be missed,” Barak was further quoted as telling the paper.
Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office as well as in the Obama administration have stressed that the summit is unlikely to result in a resumption of peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians because of differences over settlement construction and the framework of the peace process.
Late Sunday, Barak left for Washington, where he was to meet with U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates and national security adviser Gen. James Jones.
Barak, who is also a deputy prime minister, said in the interview that he would focus in Washington on maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, on Iran and on the Palestinians, the New York Times said.
The minister also reportedly said that concern about Iran remains a top priority and that Israel wants the diplomatic efforts being pursued by the Americans to be limited, well defined and followed by tough sanctions. He reiterated that he removes no option from the table, a reference to the possibility of a military assault on Iranian nuclear facilities, the paper said.
Barak added that a central challenge for the United States now is how to handle the nuclear weapons of North Korea, the paper reported, because that would greatly influence Iran.
“North Korea is developing long-range missiles in the backyard of China and Russia and nothing happens to them,” he was quoted as saying. “When the Iranian leadership asks themselves, ‘Should we be worried or just go through the ritual of defying and cheating?’ the answer depends on what happens to North Korea. A coherent move toward blocking nuclear proliferation should start with North Korea. It would have very positive ramifications for blocking Iran.”