Israel's Barak Says Border, Refugee Issues Critical to Mideast Peace Talks

Israelis and Palestinians have an opportunity to address “real issues” including borders and the fate of Palestinian refugees by moving forward with peace negotiations, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said.

“I think that the real issue is to be ready mentally and psychologically and politically on both sides to take the hard decisions to come to the table and start to negotiate,” Barak, 68, said in an interview on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” scheduled to air today.

The U.S. has been trying to persuade Israel and Palestinian Authority leaders to resume peace talks that stalled in September. Israelis and Palestinians must “stop demonizing each other,” and make “real progress” in the next few months, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Dec. 10 in a speech to Palestinian and Israeli officials including Barak.

Clinton, speaking in Washington, expressed “deep frustration” that peace talks haven’t gone further and faster. U.S. special envoy George Mitchell was scheduled to return to the region today.

Borders, Security

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said Israel should end its occupation of Palestine even as he welcomed proposals by the U.S. to address core issues of borders and security in the Middle East conflict.

“There is no reason why we should not by now have begun to see evidence of the occupation begun to be rolled back,” Fayyad, 58, said in Washington during an interview on ABC’s “This Week” program broadcast today.

Israel has built about 120 settlements in the West Bank since the late 1960s. Another 100 smaller settlements, which Israel calls outposts, were built during the past decade. The United Nations says the settlements are illegal, and the International Committee of the Red Cross says they breach the Fourth Geneva Convention governing actions on occupied territory.

Israel says the settlements don’t fall under the convention because the territory wasn’t recognized as belonging to anyone before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, in which Israel prevailed, and therefore isn’t occupied. isn’t occupied.

Israel’s Interests

There are some proposals that “can represent the interests of Israel and there are some that may be are going to be problematic, but it needs to be judged in the future,” Tzipi Livni, leader of Israel’s opposition Kadima party, said on the ABC program, where she was interviewed along with Fayyad.

In bringing the two sides together in September, President Barack Obama and Clinton said they aimed for a peace settlement within a year. Clinton’s speech last week made no reference to that goal.

Resumption of serious negotiations would require both sides to “talk about the real issues, about borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, end of conflict and finality of future claims” to resume serious negotiation,” Barak said in the CNN interview. “And I feel that the opportunity is here.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agreed in early September to try to reach an agreement on the framework for a comprehensive peace accord within a year. The talks collapsed less than a month later, when a 10-month Israeli moratorium on West Bank settlement construction expired.

Abbas has said he won’t continue the dialogue unless settlement-building is halted in east Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as a capital of an independent state.

F-35s

After weeks of diplomacy aimed at persuading Israel to renew a freeze on settlement-building, the U.S. last week retracted its offer to give Israel 20 additional F-35 fighter jets in return for a 90-day moratorium on construction in the West Bank.

“I tried to help it come to life, and I would love to see it implemented and carried out,” Barak said of the fighter-jet proposal. “And I don’t see it as a bribery.”

The Obama administration’s offer reflected “a genuine sentiment within the American people” to help Israel “keep its qualitative military edge,” he said. “Israel takes upon itself much more security risks than usual. And America can come to our help.”

Barak said Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries are “deeply worried” about the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.

Confidential U.S. diplomatic cables that the WikiLeaks website began publishing last month “exposed how realistic leaders all around the wider Middle East are” about the risk that Iran could become “the ultimate sponsor of world terror” if it achieves nuclear weapons capability, Barak said on CNN.

Asked whether Israel would authorize an attack on Iran if sanctions fail, Barak said Israel has a “right of self- defense” and didn’t rule out that possibility.

“I think that it’s still in the stage of diplomacy,” he said. “I still believe that much more active sanctions can cause the Iranian regime to have a second thought. But as I’ve said earlier, we recommend to you and to the Europeans not to remove any option from the table and we mean it.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Molly Peterson in Washington at mpeterson9@bloomberg.net; Meera Louis in Washington at Mlouis1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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