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Israel refuses to meet European ministers for settlement talks

By Catrina Stewart in Jerusalem
The Independent

Israel has said it will not meet a delegation of European foreign ministers, including William Hague, this week as diplomatic pressure mounts on its government to extend a 10-month settlement freeze that ends next week.

The Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, yesterday told Tony Blair, the Middle East envoy, that current restrictions on building West Bank Jewish settlements will not remain, but there would be some limits on construction. `We will not freeze the lives of the residents,` he said.

Israel has bridled at what it calls an `insensitive` European demand to hold meetings on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. The ministers from Britain, France, Italy, Spain and Germany had apparently proposed to hold meetings on Friday morning, hours before the start of the Yom Kippur fast.

`They showed very high insensitivity to this special date. It`s just not done,` said Yigal Palmor, a foreign ministry spokesman. `Everyone is away, no meetings are planned, all agendas are empty. We suggested alternative dates, which were refused.`

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported the meetings had been cancelled because the European ministers intended to pressure Israel over the settlements. A British embassy spokeswoman said Mr Hague`s trip was postponed because of scheduling difficulties.

The spat comes amid Israel`s growing irritation that EU countries, excluded from the US-sponsored bilateral peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, are bidding for an eleventh-hour seat at the negotiating table.

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, Mr Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, are to meet for a second round of discussions in Egypt on Tuesday, two weeks after talks were launched amid much fanfare in Washington.

President Barack Obama has made achieving peace in the Middle East a key tenet of his foreign policy, and ahead of mid-term elections has staked his political reputation on bringing the reluctant partners to direct talks.

`They [the Europeans] can`t just barge into the negotiating room when they were not involved in the process that led to these talks,` said an Israeli government official. `Where were they when the process was being laboriously pushed forward?`

Europe`s sense of exclusion was underscored when the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, criticised Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU`s foreign policy chief, after she opted to fly to China rather than join the opening of direct peace talks at the White House two weeks ago.

Baroness Ashton responded on Friday saying she had no wish to be a second-tier participant in Washington when she could bring more influence to bear in discussions in China.

Her view was supported yesterday by at least one European diplomat in Jerusalem, who said that it was not clear what role the Europeans could play at this stage. `It`s not obvious that the EU being in the room for the direct bilateral talks makes much sense when the US has to hold the ring,` the diplomat said.

A beleaguered Mr Netanyahu is likely to come under pressure on the issue of settlements during the second round of talks, an obstacle that has loomed large over the process.

Mr Obama upped the stakes on Friday when he urged Israel to extend the settlement freeze, which expires at the end of September.

`What I`ve said to PM Netanyahu is that given, so far, the talks are moving forward in a constructive way, it makes sense to extend that moratorium,` he said in remarks that he has previously resisted making publicly.

Pushed to respond, Mr Netanyahu appeared to hang back from an extension in an apparent sop to his pro-settler coalition partners, who have threatened to leave the coalition if he calls for a new freeze. But he also said that not all of the `tens of thousands of housing units` in the pipeline would go ahead, remarks aimed at the Palestinians, who have threatened to quit the talks if settlement construction is not stopped.

The Palestinians remained adamant yesterday that they would accept nothing less than a freeze.

`Our position is very clear,` said Husam Zomlo, a Palestinian spokesman. `Should the settlement construction and expansion continue, we are out.` Palestinians, who want a state based on the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, have agreed in principle to limited land swaps, but have insisted that Israel refrain from putting `facts on the ground` before an agreement is reached.

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