JERUSALEM (AP) – British Foreign Secretary David Miliband is expressing strong opposition to Jewish settlement in the West Bank, and officials are speaking of an economic offensive to try to force them to be taken down.
Miliband will also urge Syria to tie up peace talks with its historical enemy during talks over the next two days in Jerusalem and Damascus, Israeli and British officials said Sunday as he began his visit. He also has meetings scheduled in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, his office said.
Miliband is pressing European partners for tighter control of imports to the European Union from the Jewish settlements, some of which are admitted at European ports as the produce of Israel and therefore enjoy tariff benefits under an Israel-EU treaty, the officials said.
“We know of the British concern referring to this matter,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said. “We have been involved for some time now in dialogue with our British counterparts in order to find a way to solve this issue.”
British Embassy spokeswoman Karen Kaufman clarified Miliband’s plans. “The foreign secretary made it clear that Britain is not trying to shift the goal posts on this issue but is following up on representations made to us about the workings of the system,” she said, as Miliband began a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. He also met Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The two had a “clear exchange of views,” Kaufman said.
European diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity as a fresh economic offensive on the West Bank settlements has not been officially approved, said Miliband has been trying to muster support in Brussels for tougher implementation of existing customs regulations in the hope that settlements, a core issue in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, could be placed under a siege that could help hasten their dismantlement.
In a Nov. 4 speech in London, Miliband spoke with passion about the despair of Palestinians who, shortly after a U.S.-sponsored peace conference a year ago in Annapolis saw Israeli construction in the West Bank soar by 80 percent on land the Palestinians seek for a state.
“For Palestinians, feeling cheated and abused, there…are fears…that talks are a screen to cover continued settlement expansion, home demolition, land confiscation and the daily indignities of occupation,” he said. “Settlement activity is illegal; it also makes a Palestinian state more difficult to achieve by the week.”
Israel has traditionally defended its settlements by maintaining that the West Bank’s ownership is disputed and can be resolved only through negotiations.
Miliband has also spoken of Israel’s security concerns, among them the rockets aimed at northern Israel by the violent Syrian-backed Hezbollah militia just across the border in Lebanon.
“We’ve been engaging with the Syrian government for some time impressing upon them the responsibilities they have to curb the flow of rockets to Hezbollah to curb the flow of fighters into Iraq; to contribute positively to stability in the Middle East ultimately through normalization of their relations with Israel,” he said in remarks broadcast Sunday by Israel Radio.
Miliband was scheduled to meet other Israeli officials on Monday and visit Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, then travel on to Lebanon and Syria.