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Pressure mounts for Mideast talks as Israel's settlement freeze nears end

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 28, 2010; A09

ITAMAR, WEST BANK -- While Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited Washington this week to talk about peace gestures toward the Palestinians, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was planting a tree in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank -- an indication of permanence that few Palestinians would welcome.

The contrast showed the confusion U.S. officials face in figuring out how willing Israel might be to cede territory as part of a two-state solution to the conflict.

President Obama's Middle East envoy, George J. Mitchell, has been laboring for months to move Israelis and Palestinians into direct talks on the core issues that divide them, including the future of Jewish settlements built on land Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

The peace effort faces a major challenge on Sept. 26, when a 10-month freeze of Israeli settlement construction is set to expire. The United States and Israel for years have quarreled over Israeli construction in the occupied West Bank that is widely considered illegal under international law. The United States, which says settlement construction undermines peace talks, pushed hard for the moratorium on building.

Lieberman, who wields immense power as the head of the second-largest party in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's coalition, reassured settlers Monday that life would return to normal when the freeze ends.

"When we took the decision on the settlement freeze, we said explicitly that it was only for 10 months and that afterward life would return to the way it was," Lieberman said during a visit to the Bruchin settlement. "We think people here, who were sent here by previous Israeli governments to live, have a right to live normal lives."

That Israel's chief diplomat was touring the West Bank, rather than traveling to Washington, was not totally surprising: Lieberman lives in a settlement. And the politician's domestic initiatives in recent months have garnered more attention than his diplomacy.

His Yisrael Beitenu ("Israel Is Our Home") party has sponsored legislation that would strip citizenship from Arab Israelis deemed disloyal to the state. He has tangled with Netanyahu over budget matters in a rift that became front-page news. And his party has sponsored a bill to change rules related to Jewish conversion that angered American Jews from the liberal Reform and Conservative movements.

Amid all of this, Netanyahu seems to be trying to minimize Lieberman's exposure abroad. Following Israel's raid on an aid ship bound for the blockaded Gaza Strip that left nine Turkish activists dead, Netanyahu sent his industry and trade minister to see Turkey's foreign minister in a secret rapprochement bid. Netanyahu himself met Tuesday with Jordan's King Abdullah II to discuss prospects for peace talks.

Barak has become the de facto envoy for Israel's important relationship with the United States, having visited Washington seven times in the past year. Lieberman has visited once.

None of that makes Lieberman, however, any less important when it comes to Israeli politics. The 52-year-old, born in the former Soviet republic of Moldova, has emerged as a forceful leader of the Israeli right, and one of the most skeptical voices on peace with the Palestinians.

On Monday, Lieberman traveled from Bruchin to Barkan, an Israeli industrial zone in the West Bank. Lieberman walked past vats of soaking chickpeas and posed for a photo with Palestinian workers packaging hummus.

Barkan industrialists have complained about the toll a Palestinian boycott of settlement goods has taken on their business. Lieberman pledged to seek ways to compensate factory owners for their losses.

The Palestinian Authority says the boycott is an effective way to draw attention to Israel's settlements. Israel sees it as a sign of the Palestinians' unwillingness to make peace.

"Anyone, who wants to see a good example of coexistence, ought to come here," Lieberman said, noting that half of the industrial park's 6,000 workers are Palestinians.

Later, Lieberman told a settlement leader he would bring mobile homes to Barkan to house new Russian immigrants. By contrast, that same day, the Israeli army removed an illegal mobile home at a settlement outpost.

From the bulletproof window of his bus, Lieberman could see Palestinian olive trees burning on a hillside that settler youths had torched in response to the army action.

Soon after, standing atop Mount Gerizim, Lieberman peered down at a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Nablus, today a major Palestinian population center. A tour guide read to Lieberman from biblical passages asserting Jewish claims to the area.

Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon, a former ambassador to the United States who is now a member of Lieberman's party, listened nearby. He said he saw no conflict between Lieberman's settlement solidarity tour and Barak's message that Israel is ready to make bold peace gestures.

"It's not a contradiction at all," Ayalon said, noting that the settlement dispute will be resolved only as part of direct peace talks. "On the contrary, it's just one aspect that shows the complexity of the issue."

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