Mon Sep 21, 2009 9:53am EDT
By Alastair Macdonald
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will defend expanding Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank when he meets U.S. President Barack Obama and the Palestinian leader, his spokesman said on Monday.
“You have never heard the prime minister say he would freeze settlement building. The opposite is true,” Nir Hefetz told Israel’s Army Radio when asked about Tuesday’s three-way summit during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, where differences over settlement building have limited expectations of a result.
“There are some politicians … who see halting building or ceding national territory or harming the settlements in Judea and Samaria as an asset, something that can help Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu cannot be counted among those people.”
Using Israel’s term for the West Bank, he added: “He sees the settlements in Judea and Samaria as a Zionist enterprise and the settlers in Judea and Samaria as his — our — brothers.”
Some 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and in Arab East Jerusalem, captured in a 1967 war, alongside three million Palestinians. The World Court calls the settlements illegal and Palestinians say the enclaves could deny them a viable state.
Israeli officials have said Netanyahu last week offered Obama’s envoy George Mitchell a 9-month freeze in building in the West Bank but that Washington was seeking a one-year freeze in order to persuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to resume peace negotiations that were suspended in December.
Netanyahu himself, facing strong opposition from within his own coalition to any concessions on settlements, has avoided making such a public commitment to halting construction.
Tuesday’s encounter will be Netanyahu’s first meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas since he became prime minister in March. Officials on all sides have played down the chance of it leading to a rapid re-launch of peace negotiations.
Speaking privately, Palestinian and Israeli officials have said the meeting may be little more than a photo opportunity for Obama, who has little so far to show for a pledge to work for peace in the Middle East’s six-decade-old conflict.
Leading Israeli commentator Nahum Barnea, writing in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, called the meeting “a joke at the expense of the American president, who has chosen to get involved in Middle East politics and has suffered for it”.
Hefetz said: “We never expressed our wish that the meeting should only be a courtesy call … The prime minister has said many times that to advance peace he is ready to go anywhere in the world at any time, as long as there are no preconditions.
“A meeting has indeed been set without preconditions, which undoubtedly is intended to advance peace. This is the aim of the American president and the prime minister will happily attend.
“On one thing the prime minister is not prepared to compromise, and on this he has been consistent throughout — that is the matter of Israel’s security.”
On Sunday, a spokesman for Abbas said the meeting would not signal a full re-launch of peace talks, which remain blocked by profound disagreement over settlements and the scope of talks.
U.S. officials called the meeting a mark of Obama’s personal commitment to Middle East peace but played down the prospect of quick developments: “These three leaders are going to sit down in the same room and continue to narrow the gaps,” one said.
However, neither side has shown any shift away from the deadlock that was evident on Friday when Obama’s special envoy Mitchell completed a week shuttling around the region.
As well as an open-ended halt to settlement that includes not just the West Bank but East Jerusalem, Palestinians want Israel to commit from the start of negotiations to reaching permanent resolutions of all the core issues of the conflict — including borders, Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem’s status.
Netanyahu, who highlights the fact that Abbas’s authority is limited since Islamist Hamas seized Gaza in 2007, has suggested talks focus on interim improvements in security and prosperity.
Israel signed up to a U.S.-backed peace plan in 2003, the “road map”. It called for a halt to building in the Jewish settlements that Palestinians say are eating away at the viability of a future state in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
While Netanyahu has been under the heaviest U.S. pressure on Israel in years, he has insisted settlers should be allowed to continue building as their families grow and rules out any discussion on sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinians.