Olmert echoes Obama’s call to halt settlements in bid for peace

JERUSALEM – Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took a rare public jab at his successor yesterday, saying that Israel should agree to the United States demand to halt settlement construction in the West Bank in order to restart Mideast peace talks.

Olmert suggested the present Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Obama Administration were wasting valuable time by focusing on such a “marginal” issue, rather than tackling the key issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

President Barack Obama has asked for a new three-month moratorium on settlement construction after a 10-month slowdown expired in September, leading peace negotiations to stall. Palestinians say they will not talk unless a freeze is in place.

“If someone says that 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 mean what could happen in two months?” Olmert said. “I would say ‘Mr President, why two? Why not three? Take three’.”

Netanyahu has yet to commit to a renewal, saying he is waiting for written US assurances.

Olmert, who resigned two years ago to face corruption charges, has kept a low profile since leaving office in early 2009 and has refrained from publicly criticising Netanyahu.

He said he wouldn’t have agreed to a settlement freeze in the first place, saying it was more important to focus on final borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem. But he said he would not turn down a request from Israel’s closest ally. Obama has said he hopes to reach a deal within a year, and Olmert said both Israel and the US should focus on achieving that.

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