Israel’s Livni accuses Jewish Home party of sabotaging talks with Palestinians

Chief peace negotiator accuses key coalition partner of deliberately seeking to sabotage talks with the Palestinians by ramping up settlement construction.

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JERUSALEM // Israel’s chief peace negotiator yesterday accused a key coalition partner of deliberately seeking to sabotage talks with the Palestinians by ramping up settlement construction.

Speaking before the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, arrived on his second visit within a week, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni accused the far-right national religious Jewish Home party of deliberately promoting Israeli settlement projects in a bid “to derail” the negotiations.

“More building, more announcements of building in isolated settlements are meant to prevent us reaching peace,” she told an audience at Tel Aviv University.

“That is their deliberate intention, to derail the negotiations. To cause the other side to walk out of the room,” she said.

Mr Kerry’s latest peacemaking mission to the region is expected to focus on security in any final-status accord.

Along with the issue of Israeli settlements on land Palestinians want for their future state, Palestinians also object to Israel’s insistence on maintaining troops in the Jordan Valley area of the West Bank even after a final peace treaty is signed.

“There should be a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces to the 1967 lines, including the Jordan Valley,” Saleh Rafat, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s executive committee, said. “If Kerry just comes back with the same proposals, this is not acceptable.”

The Palestinians would accept deployment of an international force in the Jordan Valley, Mr Rafat said — a proposal Israel rejects.

The Israelis want to maintain forces in the Jordan Valley to protect the country’s eastern border.

“Sometimes there is the impression that the Palestinians are seizing on every detail, every excuse, to sabotage every chance for peace, every negotiation,” Israeli minister of intelligence and strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz, said. “The principle is very simple; our security must rest in our own hands.”

Mr Kerry arrived yesterday for another round of shuttle diplomacy aimed at driving forward the peace talks.

He was to meet the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank yesterday. However, a heavy snowstorm forced the cancellation of his meeting with Mr Netanyahu in Jerusalem yesterday, although they are scheduled to meet today.

Looking to win him over Mr Abbas, Mr Kerry was yesterday to be accompanied by retired US General John Allen, who has been working on possible solutions to allay Israeli security concerns.

“It is the first time that Gen Allen is doing a briefing with President Abbas,” a US official said. Until now Gen Allen, a former commander of US troops in Afghanistan, has only briefed the Israelis on his ideas.

The Jewish Home party, which was criticised by Ms Livni, controls the housing ministry, giving it a key role in promoting Israeli construction on land the Palestinians want for a future state.

“When one speaks of the Jewish Home’s veto power in the government, everyone is concerned with its veto on issues of religion and state,” said Ms Livni, whose centrist HaTnuah party is also part of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition.

“They have another veto — with more settlement building, they place a veto on peace. They must not be allowed to use this informal veto, this illegitimate veto,” she said.

The US brokered a renewal of peace talks in July between Palestinians and Israelis after a three-year hiatus. At the end of his trip last week, Mr Kerry said the sides were closer to peace than they have been in years and that an accord was reachable.

If the talks do not progress, the US is preparing to present its own outline of a final peace agreement to both sides within weeks, the Haaretz daily said yesterday, citing unidentified American and Israeli officials.

“This is an continuing discussion,” state Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Wednesday, two days after Mr Kerry met with each side’s top negotiators in Washington. “Certainly we expect they will talk about security, as they will discuss other issues.”

The US hopes by the end of April to reach a final-status agreement for Israeli-Palestinian peace, a document that details all the core issues but is less detailed than a full treaty, which would probably take another six months to a year to iron out, according to US officials.

* Agence France-Presse with additonal reporting by Associated Press, Reuters and Bloomberg News