Israeli ex-PM insists that settlements be suspended

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was urged yesterday by his predecessor to agree a further halt to Jewish settlement building despite the "wasted" 18 months spent on the "marginal" issue of whether construction should be frozen.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who believes he came closer to a peace deal with the Palestinian leadership than any other Israeli leader, said he had not frozen settlement construction during his own negotiations because he had been anyway ready to give up most of the West Bank when the talks concluded.

Blaming both the US and Israel for their mistakes since President Obama took office at the beginning of 2008 and pressed Israel to freeze settlement construction, he told foreign correspondents: "I don't understand it. The substance is what counts. We have wasted a year and half... What counts? A new building here and a new building there or a comprehensive agreement that can resolve the conflict?"

But in a rare intervention in current politics Mr Olmert, who left office last year facing fraud and corruption charges, made a thinly veiled criticism of Mr Netanyahu for not having yet agreed to the US request to restore the moratorium in order to restart direct peace talks with Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian President has said he will not agree to talks without a further settlement freeze.

Referring to the Obama administration's September proposal for a second, two-month moratorium – now increased to 90 days – in return for series of security guarantees, Mr Olmert said that unlike Mr Netanyahu he would not have agreed to the first one lasting 10 months. But he said: "If someone says he agrees to 10 months of freezing and the president of the mightiest nation on earth and friendliest nation to Israel comes to you and says 'please give me two [more] months, only two months' I would say 'Mr President, why two? Why not three? Take three.'"

Mr Olmert claimed that the Palestinians led by Mr Abbas had made a "historic mistake" by not accepting his offer in late 2008. It centred on a territorial deal based on 1967 borders with Israel withdrawing from around 94 per cent of the West Bank, locating the most populated settlement blocs within Israel but with a one-for-one land swap putting equivalent territory in Palestinian hands and including a Palestinian controlled tunnel linking Gaza to the West Bank.

It would have designated Arab districts of Jerusalem as Palestinian, and made a token and limited admission of the descendants of refugees from the 1948 war to Israel, with compensation for other refugees.

Israel was insisting that establishment of the Palestinian state would have been conditional on fulfilment of the Palestinians' 2003 Road Map requirement for "effective operations against all those engaged in terror".

Without overtly questioning whether Mr Netanyahu will ever be prepared to make the same "painful concessions" as he did, Mr Olmert said pointedly: "When you are in the leadership you have to make decisions, assume responsibility, face the whole world and face your conscience. Do you want to be Prime Minister for 10, 15, 20 years and then what? Or do you want to do something that will change the lives of your grandchildren?"