- Associated Press - Monday, September 6, 2010

JERUSALEM | Israel’s hard-line foreign minister said Monday that his party will try to block any extension of Israel’s settlement slowdown, a move that could derail the recently launched Mideast peace negotiations.

Avigdor Lieberman said the Israeli government must keep its promise to voters that the 10-month slowdown, declared last November under U.S. pressure in order to draw the Palestinians to the negotiating table, will end as scheduled at the end of the month.

The Sept. 26 deadline is a challenge for the fragile talks launched in Washington last week. The Palestinians say they will quit the talks if settlement construction accelerates, but not ending the slowdown could potentially bring down the Israeli government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to say how he will handle the deadline.

“A promise is a promise,” Mr. Lieberman told Israel Radio. “We will not agree to any extension.”

“I promise that if there’s a proposal that we don’t accept, it will not pass,” he stated.

Mr. Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party is a key member of Israel’s governing coalition, which is led by Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party.

It holds 15 seats in parliament, making it the second-largest member of the coalition and giving it the ability to rob the government of its parliamentary majority if it pulls out. Other coalition partners, and members of Mr. Netanyahu’s own party, also favor resuming construction.

In a sign that compromise was possible, however, Mr. Lieberman told the daily Yediot Ahronot that he would not quit the coalition even if he does not get his way.

“We will not leave or bring down the government. We will fight from the inside for what we believe,” he told the paper.

At the summit marking the relaunch of peace talks in Washington last week, Mr. Netanyahu used unusually warm language about the Palestinian leadership and the chances for peace. But the Israeli foreign minister has been vocal in his pessimism.

Speaking to diplomats in Jerusalem on Monday, Mr. Lieberman said the stated goal of the talks — a peace agreement within one year — was unrealistic.

The Israeli government says construction in settlements continued during previous rounds of peace talks and that building does not compromise a future deal.

Mr. Lieberman’s party ran on a platform that questioned the loyalty of Israel’s one-fifth Arab minority, and Mr. Lieberman, known for blunt and often unpredictable language, is perhaps Israel’s most polarizing politician. A resident of a West Bank settlement himself, he has absented himself from active involvement in the peace talks, which are being conducted by Mr. Netanyahu’s office.

Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, a prominent member of Mr. Netanyahu’s party, said extending the slowdown would pose a “huge danger” to the coalition.

“Within the coalition, there is a huge majority against it,” Mr. Shalom told reporters late Sunday. He said the issue could only be resolved through negotiations.

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