Israeli defense minister says occupation must end
An Israeli air force guard stand at attention as a fighter plane breaks out of formation to symbolize fallen soldiers, during a service marking Memorial Day at the Har Hatayassim air force memorial near Jerusalem, Monday, April 19, 2010. On Monday Israel marked its annual Memorial Day commemorating nearly 23,000 fallen soldiers and civilian victims of terror attacks. (AP / Sebastian Scheiner)
Published Monday, April 19, 2010 3:47PM EDT
JERUSALEM - Israel must recognize that the world will not put up with decades more of Israeli rule over the Palestinian people, the country's defence minister said in unusually frank remarks Monday.
Ehud Barak's comments came against the backdrop of severe friction between the U.S. and Israel's hawkish government over an impasse in peacemaking.
Last week, President Barack Obama issued a surprisingly pessimistic assessment of peacemaking prospects, saying the U.S. couldn't force its will on Israelis and Palestinians if they weren't interested in making the compromises necessary to end their decades-old conflict.
Barak spoke to Israel Radio on the occasion of Israel's Memorial Day, dedicated to the nearly 23,000 fallen soldiers and civilian victims of terror attacks. The day is observed with a two-minute nationwide siren when people stand at attention, traffic is halted and everyday activities come briefly to a standstill.
At sundown Monday, the sombre Memorial Day switched into Israel's 62nd Independence Day celebrations. At Mount Herzl, Israel's national cemetery, thousands watched an elaborate program of songs and folk dance while fireworks popped overhead.
Both dates are traditionally a time for introspection. This year, Israelis are dwelling on issues such as the country's growing isolation over its policies toward the Palestinians, the growing rift with the U.S. and the failure to relaunch peace talks.
Barak told Israel Radio that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has "done things that didn't come naturally to it," such as adopting the vision of two states for two peoples and curtailing settlement construction.
"But we also shouldn't delude ourselves," he added. "The growing alienation between us and the United States is not good for the state of Israel."
The way to narrow that gap is to embark on an Israeli diplomatic initiative "that doesn't shy from dealing with all the core issues" dividing Israelis and Palestinians, he said. Chief among these are the status of contested Jerusalem, final borders and a solution for Palestinian refugees from the war around Israel's 1948 independence.
In an interview Monday on ABC's "Good Morning America," Netanyahu said he would not accept Palestinian demands that Israel stop building in the traditionally Arab part of east Jerusalem.
In the interview, Netanyahu sought to minimize differences with President Barack Obama over the Mideast peace process. But he acknowledged that "we have some outstanding issues. We're trying to resolve them through diplomatic channels in the best way that we can."
Barak dismissed talk of an imposed U.S. solution -- an idea fielded recently in Washington. But he warned that while Israel is militarily strong, it needs international legitimacy as well.
"The world isn't willing to accept -- and we won't change that in 2010 -- the expectation that Israel will rule another people for decades more," he said. "It's something that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world."
Palestinians aspire to a state of their own, he said, and "there is no other way, whether you like it or not, than to let them rule themselves."
Barak heads the Labor Party, the most moderate member of Netanyahu's government.
But as defence minister in the country's past two governments, Barak has not taken down the two dozen settlement satellites that Israel promised the U.S. it would dismantle in 2003. Dovish critics have accused him of making Labor a fig leaf for the Netanyahu government's hawkish policies.
It wasn't clear whether Barak's statements reflected government policy, his own personal opinion or a desire to reach out to Labor voters. Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev declined to comment.
Later Monday, Netanyahu told the audience at the national cemetery that Israel is eager for peace, but is ready to confront its enemies.
"We extend one hand in peace to all our neighbours who wish for peace," Netanyahu said. "Our other hand grasps the sword of David in order to defend our people against those who seek to kill us."
The Obama administration has been pushing to renew Israeli-Palestinian peace talks but despite shuttle diplomacy and unusual pressure on ally Israel, it hasn't even been able to launch the indirect talks it had hoped would start last month.
Plans for those talks were put on hold indefinitely after Israel announced plans for a new housing project in east Jerusalem. Palestinians claim that sector of the city as the capital of a future state, and have refused to sit down for talks until Israel agrees to freeze all construction there -- something it has refused to do.