RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has promised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to release in coming days a list of major West Bank roadblocks that will be removed, a Palestinian negotiator said Saturday.
An Israeli Cabinet minister confirmed that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is considering a removal of some roadblocks, but suggested there would not be far-reaching changes. The safety of Israelis takes precedent, said the Cabinet minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.
On Friday, an Israeli newspaper portrayed Barak as being dismissive of Olmert’s recent efforts to revive peace talks with the Palestinian.
The Yediot Ahronot daily quoted Barak as saying in private conversations that because of security concerns he does not intend to comply with Palestinian requests to remove checkpoints. Barak was quoted as saying Abbas is incapable of taking control of the West Bank and providing security there.
Yediot also quoted Barak as calling recent peace moves with the Palestinians “fantasies” and saying Israel would not withdraw from the West Bank for at least five more years.
Ronen Moshe, a Barak spokesman, called the report “baseless,” saying Yediot’s report made Barak’s views seem far more extreme than they were. However, former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who is close to Barak, said there were serious security concerns. “I am in favor of removing roadblocks. But it’s not, `let’s go soldiers, remove roadblocks’ and tomorrow morning they wake up in (the Israeli towns of) Kfar Saba and Netanya with dozens of terrorists,” Ben-Eliezer, who serves as infrastructure minister, told Israel Radio on Saturday.
Ben-Eliezer and Barak are members of the center-left Labor Party which led failed peace talks with the Palestinians in the 1990s.
Barak, a former prime minister who was voted out of office over his discredited peace moves, hopes to become prime minister again. His comments, if accurate, might mark an attempt to woo voters by positioning himself further to the right as peacemaking efforts gain momentum.
Asked about Barak’s purported comments, Erekat said Saturday that the Palestinians have a commitment from Olmert “to pursue a meaningful peace process to realize a two-state solution.”
Abbas and Olmert met last week in the Palestinian town of Jericho, their latest in a series of talks about reviving talks on a final peace deal. Erekat said Olmert gave specific assurances to Abbas in that meeting. Olmert told Abbas that “by next week, the defense minister will submit a whole list of major checkpoints to be removed in the West Bank, to enable the mobility of the Palestinians,”‘ Erekat said.
“We are taking the commitment of the prime minister seriously, and we are waiting to see deeds,” Erekat said. Israel erected a network of checkpoints across the West Bank after the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000. The checkpoints have stifled Palestinian commerce and disrupted the daily lives of residents.
Israel argues the barriers are a crucial tool in preventing attacks on Israelis by Palestinian militants.