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Israel PM meets Blair as Quartet pushes peace

by Staff Writers
Jerusalem (AFP) Feb 28, 2011
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met on Monday with Quartet envoy Tony Blair, as negotiators sought to coax Israel and the Palestinians into dialogue.

Israeli officials confirmed the two had met but refused to give details of what was discussed, as media reports suggested the premier was shying away from sending his chief negotiator to Brussels to meet representatives of the Middle East Quartet.

Later, Netanyahu cautioned lawmakers from his hardline Likud party that Israel was facing intense international pressure over the construction of settlements in the West Bank.

"We are currently making efforts to maintain the existing construction, but we must understand that we are (faced with) a very difficult international reality," the Haaretz daily quoted him as saying.

His comments came amid protests from the lawmakers over the destruction of a building in a wildcat West Bank settlement outpost early Monday by Israeli forces.

Netanyahu said Israel needed to act with restraint, citing the new reality in the Middle East and noted that getting the United States to veto a recent UN Security Council resolution condemning settlement construction "took great effort."

"We could keep banging our heads against the wall, but that's not how I do things," he said.

Direct peace talks between the two sides broke down late last year over Jewish settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.

Israel refused to extend a 10-month partial settlement freeze and the Palestinians, who say they will not negotiate while Jewish settlers build on land they want for a future state, refused to continue with the talks.

Since then the international community has been searching in vain for a way to get them back to the negotiating table.

The Quartet chiefs -- EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and UN head Ban Ki-moon -- who last met in Munich on February 5, are due to meet again in Paris at an unspecified date in March.

Ahead of the principals' meeting, their Middle East envoys are to hold separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Brussels on March 2, according to EU officials.

Officials at Blair's office in Jerusalem confirmed that Quartet envoys were holding a series of meetings in Brussels this week and were expected to meet both Israeli and Palestinian representatives.

But reports in two Israeli newspapers said Netanyahu had not yet given the green light to his chief negotiator, Yitzhak Molcho, to attend the talks later this week.

"Netanyahu has voiced his reservations to the meeting, fearing that by agreeing he would open the door to international influence on the terms of the renewed talks.

"Specifically, the premier is worried of being forced to resume talks toward a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders," the Haaretz newspaper said.

Quoting sources in Netanyahu's office, the paper said he had been trying to find out from Washington more about the aim and goals of the Brussels session, before making a decision.

Briefing the UN Security Council last week, UN peace envoy Robert Serry said Quartet officials understood that there was a need for much clearer parametres in order for the two sides to negotiate properly.

"It is becoming increasingly clear that a more concrete and substantive basis would have to be laid out for the parties to engage. The Quartet must play its full role in this regard," he said.

Meanwhile, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat and two others were in Brussels for a round of talks with Quartet officials, sources in Ramallah said.

Erakat resigned on February 12 over the theft from his office of thousands of confidential documents on peace talks with Israel, which were subsequently leaked to Al-Jazeera and the London Guardian. However, his resignation was never formally accepted by Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas.

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