Barak: Netanyahu will bend on Palestinian state

Israel's defence minister said in an interview published today that he expects Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to the principle of Palestinian statehood — something the Israeli leader has balked at doing since taking office a month ago.

Netanyahu is coming under increasing pressure from Washington to resume peacemaking with the Palestinians, a process designed ultimately to create a Palestinian state that would live alongside Israel peacefully within fixed borders.

He has stepped back from his original plan to hold off on political negotiations while working with the Palestinians to improve their economy. But Netanyahu, who plans to visit the White House next month, has stopped short of endorsing a separate Palestinian state.

In an interview with the Haaretz daily, Defence Minister Ehud Barak suggested that Netanyahu could relent.

"I believe that during Netanyahu's visit to Washington, Israel must formulate how it intends to move forward, and that formula will not propose three states for eight peoples," Barak said.

The prime minister's office would not comment. But an aide to the prime minister said a policy review was under way and should be completed around the time Netanyahu goes to Washington.

The same official said there was "excellent coordination" between Netanyahu and his defence minister.

The Palestinians hope to set up a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 war.

Israel has annexed east Jerusalem, and some 230,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005. But the coastal territory is now controlled by the Islamic militant group Hamas, complicating potential peace efforts. Israel considers Hamas, which rejects Israel's right to exist, a terrorist group.

Barak's centrist Labour Party, which supports Palestinian statehood, is the lone moderate voice in Netanyahu's government. But during his two years as defence minister in the preceding government of Ehud Olmert, Barak rebuffed Palestinian demands to halt settlement expansion or remove a significant number of Israeli roadblocks that encumber Palestinian movement in the West Bank.

In a separate interview published today, Netanyahu's other top policy-making partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, denied that Jewish settlements in the West Bank were an obstacle to peacemaking, as Palestinians and the international community claim.

Lieberman also said Israel can't negotiate peace with the Palestinians until they dismantle militant groups and set up a proper justice system. The Palestinians committed to do so under the US-backed "road map" peace plan of June 2002 — which obliged Israel to halt all settlement construction.

"To jump straight to the last paragraph and to concede on all of the Palestinian commitments to fight terror — it's a very strange approach," Lieberman told The Jerusalem Post daily.

The official in the prime minister's office also said there was "excellent coordination" between Netanyahu and Lieberman.