AP interview: Barak says Israel must negotiate

June 21, 2011 - 8:30 AM

PARIS (AP) — Israel's defense minister said Tuesday that despite the upheaval in the Arab world from pro-democracy uprisings, Israel should push forward with negotiations.

Ehud Barak was in Paris Tuesday for talks with the French foreign and defense ministers. In an interview with The Associated Press he emphasized the importance of restarting the long-stalled peace talks, despite some misgivings by other members of his own government.

"We are looking at an area which is under a political turmoil, something we have not witnessed for maybe 90 years since the collapse of the Ottoman empire, he said. "I cannot say that their (others in the government) doubts don't have a certain foundation but I still believe despite all uncertainty Israel should make a real attempt to enter negotiations."

Since the beginning of the year, the Arab world has been wracked by pro-democracy demonstrations, which brought down the governments in Tunisia and Israel's neighbor Egypt.

There has been some worry in Israel that the new governments that emerge in the region might be more hostile to the Jewish state than their predecessors. Israeli skeptics note that elections in the Middle East have brought groups like Hamas and Hezbollah to power.

"It's clear to us that (with) these events of the Arab spring that under certain situation we might find ourselves having to defend ourselves alone," Barak said.

The latest round of peace talks broke down in September, just three weeks after their launch, with the expiration of an Israeli moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank.

The Palestinians have threatened to bypass the negotiations altogether and declare their statehood directly to the United Nations General Assembly, where they have a great deal of international support.

It would only be a symbolic move, however, as the body has little real power. Yet there are fears that Israel could become further isolated and face heavy pressure to make future concessions.

"I think it doesn't serve the Palestinians themselves going through the U.N. General Assembly to produce a statement more than a decision — a statement that could create damage in more than one sense," Barak said, calling for negotiating instead.

"I believe that many senior Palestinian officials see that the right way is not to go to the U.N. but to enter the negotiating room," he added.

President Barack Obama has called for negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians to be carried out on the basis of the 1967 Israeli borders with a series of mutually agreed-upon land swaps to reflect the situation on the ground.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejects a return to the 1967 lines, which would mean a full withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem. But Barak hinted the Israelis were ready to adopt a formula similar to the one outlined by Obama.

"There should be mutually agreed changes in the border to reflect the realities both demographic and security, the realities that have been created on the ground," he said.