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Israeli minister says U.S. boosts Arab hardliners

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Obama administration’s pressure on Israel to curb settlement activity will bolster Palestinian hardliners and hinder peace efforts, a senior Israeli cabinet minister said on Monday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits in front of Benny Begin, before a swearing-in ceremony for Netanyahu's government, at parliament in Jerusalem March 31, 2009. REUTERS/David Silverman/Pool

Tension with Washington flared three weeks ago, and has simmered since, over the announcement of an Israeli blueprint for 1,600 more homes for Jews in areas of the occupied West Bank that Israel had annexed to East Jerusalem.

The Palestinians, who want their own state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with a capital in East Jerusalem, backed out of planned U.S.-mediated peace talks with Israel, demanding the new project be scrapped.

Benny Begin, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner cabinet, described Washington’s view on Jerusalem as departing from that of previous U.S. administrations, that the city’s status should be resolved in peace negotiations.

“It’s bothersome, and certainly worrying,” Begin told Israel Radio. “This change will definitely bring about the opposite to the declared objective. It will bring about a hardening in the policy of the Arabs and of the Palestinian Authority.”

The diplomatic deadlock has coincided with an increase in Israeli-Palestinian violence in the West Bank, and in the Gaza Strip whose Islamist Hamas rulers spurn the Jewish state and deride Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s peace strategy.

Hoping to salvage negotiations, the United States has been seeking unspecified goodwill gestures from Israel toward the Palestinians.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told the newspaper Maariv these included “freezing construction in most of the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem.” He cited four eastern settlements as examples.

Netanyahu has refused to stop any such projects in Jerusalem, which Israel regards as its eternal and indivisible capital, a claim not recognized internationally.

“I am certain that we will convince the U.S. that this demand is unreasonable,” Lieberman said in the interview.


U.S. President Barack Obama gave Netanyahu an unusually low-profile reception at White House talks last week, devoid of the traditional photo opportunity or joint statement.

Begin’s misgivings about the Obama administration have been echoed by others in the seven-member inner cabinet, which guides policy and is dominated by right-wingers including the prime minister.

Begin, the son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, is on record as opposing a Palestinian state in the West Bank, which Israel captured with the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war and has peppered with Jewish settlements.

Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 but has vowed to keep West Bank settlement blocs under any accord.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the only left-winger in the inner cabinet, has taken a different tack on the dispute with the United States.

“The U.S. administration is looking for an answer to the question of whether Israel is energetically and seriously going along with it toward broad understandings in the diplomatic process,” he told reporters on Sunday.

“In other words, direct talks on core questions,” he said. “This is the question bothering the U.S. administration more than the concrete requests ... that are still being discussed in the contacts between us.”

Netanyahu has offered the Palestinians direct negotiations without preconditions. However, to Abbas’s chagrin, he has made clear Israel would only accept a Palestinian state shorn of some sovereign powers and which recognized Israel as a Jewish state.

The feud with Washington put Netanyahu in a political bind. Meeting U.S. demands on settlements -- after a 10-month partial construction freeze he announced in November -- could endanger his coalition and bolster the centrist opposition.

Netanyahu’s Likud party has fallen behind the opposition Kadima in opinion polls this month for the first time since last year’s election. A Maariv survey on Friday suggested Likud would win 28 of parliament’s 120 seats if a ballot were held now, against 29 to Kadima.

Editing by Andrew Dobbie