- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 24, 2009

JERUSALEM | Israel’s foreign minister said Wednesday that the summit of Israeli, U.S. and Palestinian leaders proved Israel could successfully fend off international pressure to freeze West Bank settlement construction.

However, Palestinian officials expressed disappointment with Tuesday’s meeting in New York. The United States appeared to back down from a demand, expressed forcefully in recent months, that Israel cease all construction in West Bank settlements.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in New York with President Obama and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. It was Mr. Netanyahu’s first meeting with Mr. Abbas since taking office in March. Beyond a cool handshake, there were no signs of progress toward the U.S. goal of restarting peace talks.

The Palestinians have said they would not resume negotiations until Israel halted all construction in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim both areas and the Gaza Strip, all captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as parts of a future independent state.

Speaking to Israel Radio, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the fact that the meeting took place showed Israel’s firm stand against a settlement freeze was effective.

“This government has shown that you don’t always need to get flustered, to surrender and give in,” Mr. Lieberman told Israel Radio. “What’s important for me is that this government kept its promises to the voter … and the fact is that this meeting happened.”

Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had previously demanded a full halt to construction in the settlements.

But at Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. Obama did not explicitly call for a settlement freeze, and former Sen. George J. Mitchell, the U.S. envoy to the Middle East, said afterward that the administration does not see a resolution of the settlement showdown as a precondition for resuming negotiations.

Palestinian officials said they were disappointed Mr. Obama had softened his stance and urged him to reassess his position.

“This shows the negative intentions of the Israeli government,” said Jibril Rajoub, a top official in Mr. Abbas’ Fatah movement. “The Americans should review their policies toward cooperating with the Israeli government.”

Israeli media largely portrayed the summit as a futile exercise, while acknowledging Mr. Netanyahu’s success in rebuffing the Obama administration’s previous pressure on settlements.

“There has never been such a hollow ceremony,” Nahum Barnea, a prominent Israeli columnist, wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily.

While Mr. Netanyahu might feel that he won, “he should remember the lesson that the Middle East gives all its winners: In this region, the short-term winner loses in the long term,” Mr. Barnea wrote.

Mr. Netanyahu has agreed to slow settlement construction for a limited time. He has said construction will continue on about 3,000 housing units, most of which are already being built.

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