Israel's Barak dismisses peace push "fantasies"

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak was quoted as saying on Friday that talk of any peace deal with the Palestinians anytime soon was a “fantasy”, in a challenge to U.S.-led efforts to revive negotiations.

Israel's Defence Minister and Labour party head Ehud Barak speaks during a party meeting in Tel Aviv July 1, 2007. A peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will not be reached for at least three to five years, an Israeli newspaper reported Israel's defense minister as saying. REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen

In private conversations reported by Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Barak said he would not carry out plans by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to remove roadblocks in the West Bank as a gesture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

But senior Abbas aide Saeb Erakat said on Friday the Palestinians were told that Barak will present a “map” to remove the checkpoints next week.

Barak’s office stopped short of denying the Yedioth report in its entirety, but said: “There is no change in Barak’s stance regarding the importance of the political process alongside our obligation to protect Israel’s security.”

A spokesman for Olmert declined to comment on the report in the mass circulation daily.

Barak, who as prime minister spearheaded talks with the Palestinians that ended in failure in 2001, was quoted in Yedioth as saying a peace deal would not be possible for at least three to five years.

Barak said that is how much time would be needed for Israel to develop defenses against rockets, which Palestinian militants regularly fire into southern Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

“You can’t feed Israelis fantasies about an arrangement with the Palestinians anytime soon,” Barak was quoted as saying.

Barak said in the report the most important question was whether Abbas and Salam Fayyad, whom Abbas appointed prime minister after sacking a Hamas-led government, are capable of implementing any deal.

Yedioth said Barak’s answer was “No”.

Olmert met Abbas in the West Bank for the first time on Monday, beginning discussions on so-called “fundamental issues” for the establishment of a Palestinian state. They aim to reach an agreement on statehood principals within four months when a U.S.-sponsored conference is expected to be held.

Palestinian officials said after Monday’s meeting that they had received assurances from Olmert that Israel would approve as early as next week the removal of some of the hundreds of checkpoints, roadblocks and other barriers that restrict Palestinian travel in the West Bank.

But Yedioth said Barak told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, international Middle East envoy Tony Blair and Fayyad that he would not approve the removal of West Bank roadblocks. “My supreme responsibility is to the security of the Israeli citizens,” Barak was quoted as saying.

The report did not say when Barak made the comments on roadblocks, which contradicted statements by other defence officials.

Barak, whose left-leaning Labour Party is the senior partner in Olmert’s coalition, said he did not intend to break away from the government, but added that Olmert would appear “detached from reality” when the peace talks broke down.

Barak failed to make peace with the Palestinians during his brief tenure as prime minister despite a lengthy Camp David summit with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and U.S. President Bill Clinton.