Brown and Netanyahu debate settlements

By Ian Dunt and Liz Stephens

The prime ministers of Britain and Israel have emerged from talks on continued settlement building.

Benjamin Netanyahu sounded a relatively contrite note on the issue, and stressed the moves Israel was making to ensure ease the suffering of Palestinians.

“We’re working hard to advance a peace process that will lead to an actual peace result and we hope to move forward in the weeks and months ahead,” he said.

“We are not weak. We have already moved. My government has moved 147 checkpoints and roadblocks. The 14 remaining checkpoints. are manned 24 hours a day to facilitate movement.

“We have moved forward,” he continued.

“We intend to move forward. We expect our Palestinian partners to be courageous partners for peace that move forward. With the help of our friends. I hope we can achieve progress that may confound the cynics and surprise the world. But there is no substitute for courageous leadership

“Gordon is a true friend of Israel and a true friend of peace, a champion of decency.”

Mr Brown stressed that Britain was committed to the peace process, but he sounded a cautious note when discussing the matter of settlements.

“We want a viable Palestinian economy so that people can see the benefits of prosperity from peaceful coexistence and working together. We want to involve the rest of the Arab states in making sure they are involved and support a peace process that works.”

But the Israeli prime minister was stern when discussing Jerusalem.

“I’ve made it clear. Jerusalem is the sovereign capital of Israel. We accept no limitations on our sovereignty,” he said.

“To put a fine point on this – Jerusalem is not a settlement. The settlement issue is outstanding, it is one of the issues that have to be resolved. But our position is Jerusalem is the united capital of the Jewish people. We’ve only been around here for 3,500 years.”

Gordon Brown’s first foreign policy engagement since returning from holiday was dogged by questions over his silence on the issue of the compassionate release of Libyan bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

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Furthermore, the Israeli prime minister evidently spent much of the meeting urging action on Iran.

“Time is running out,” he said.

“It’s late in the day but it’s not too late. If there is a firm resolve by the international community to apply crippling sanctions I think this regime will have to make a very difficult decision about its future course. I think it’s susceptible to these pressures.

“What has been revealed in the recent dramatic events of the Iranian election is this regime does not enjoy the support of the Iranian people. It is far weaker than meets the eye.”

He added: “The stronger those actions are today, the less need there will be for stronger actions tomorrow.

Mr Brown sounded similar rhetoric, saying: “We recognise the threat that is posed by Iran.”

He continued: “We recognise that if they make the decision to go forward and provide nuclear weapons that has profound security implications.

“Iran has a choice. They can work with the international community. or they can find themselves ostracised and excluded because of their decision to break the NPT (nuclear non-proliferation treaty) and hide from the world what they’re doing.”

The discussions were never going to be easy. Mr Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud party, is known to be reluctant to recognise the Palestinians’ right to an independent state.

Mr Brown voiced strong opposition last year to Israeli settlements during a press conference with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

“Settlement expansion has made peace harder to achieve,” he said.

“It erodes trust, it heightens Palestinian suffering, it makes the compromises Israel will need to make for peace more difficult. So we are very clear – not just Britain but the whole of the European Union – what should be done.”

Meanwhile relations between America and Israel have been frosty at best since May when, in a meeting with the Israeli prime minister, Barack Obama publicly insisted that Israel freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank.

Although the two governments have reportedly continued their negotiations and the Israeli prime minister is due to meet US envoy George Mitchell during his visit, many right-wing members of Mr Netanyahu’s own government remain virulently pro-settlements.

Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who himself lives on a settlement, poured cold water on President Obama’s peace efforts over the weekend saying: “Bringing President Obama’s dream to fruition in two years, including an overall agreement and a [Palestinian] state, is unrealistic.

“Even in another 16 years, we won’t have an agreement.”

The Oslo peace agreement was signed 16 years ago and since then relations between Israel and Palestine have barely progressed, according to most international observers.

Last week, Mr Netanyahu was forced to interrupt his holiday after his deputy prime minister Moshe Ya’alon was recorded on a mobile phone saying that he was in favour of standing up to pressure from the Obama administration on settlements.

“I am not afraid of the Americans. There are moments when we must say, ‘We’ve had it up to here'”.

As Mr Netanyahu prepared to leave Israel for London yesterday his spokesman said: “The prime minister will make it clear that, during the process, Israel will not allow any limitation or restriction of its sovereignty over Jerusalem and that there must be guarantees settlers can lead a normal life.”

Hardline pro-Israel groups in the US have been lobbying the Obama administration, accusing it of jeopardising Israel’s security.

A widely-circulated but confidential report by influential lobby group The Israel Project, allegedly says that those who back the removal of the settlements should be told they are supporting ethnic cleansing and anti-Semitism.

Meanwhile, pro-Palestinian lobbyists accuse Israel of war crimes and have been lobbying both American and British governments with equal vigour.

Although Mr Netanyahu has reportedly agreed to stop issuing new construction tenders in the West Bank and east Jerusalem until the beginning of 2010, plans for a new settlement in the predominantly Arab area of east Jerusalem were reportedly filed at the city council only yesterday.

Nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers live in east Jerusalem and the West Bank but both Israelis and Palestinian sides see the issue as merely a first step in a wider struggle over the establishment of universally recognised Israeli and Palestinian states and the shape of final borders.