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Middle east

Netanyahu summons rebel minister over call to defy US

©

Text by NEWS WIRES

Latest update : 2009-08-20

Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has reprimanded strategic affairs minister Moshe Yaalon, after the latter called on the Israeli government to resist US demands for a settlement freeze.

AFP - Israel's hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday summoned a minister who whipped up a political storm by calling on the government to oppose US demands for a settlement freeze.

Netanyahu told Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Yaalon to report to him on Thursday evening, according to Israeli media. The mass-selling Yediot Aharonot said Netanyahu would issue a "severe reprimand."

Yaalon's comments come at an embarrassing time for Netanyahu who has sought to ease tension with the United States and made gestures to Washington over the thorny issue of Israeli settlements in occupied areas.

In statements seen by Israeli media as a strong challenge to Netanyahu from the right-wing of his Likud party, Yaalon said the government should be tougher in responding to US President Barack Obama's call for a freeze of settlement activity.

"I for one am not afraid of the Americans. There are issues on which one should say 'that's enough'," Yaalon said, in statements broadcast on Wednesday night by Channel 2.

He clearly rejected US calls for a freeze of settlement activity, insisting the Jews have a rightful claim to the biblical Land of Israel -- a term used to include the Palestinian territories.

"I believe that Jews have the right to live anywhere in the Land of Israel forever," he added in remarks the television station said were made to a meeting of far-right members of Netanyahu's Likud party on Sunday.

Yaalon, who is also a vice premier, described the Israeli anti-settlement Peace Now group as "a virus," a remark that stirred widespread outrage in Israel.

Netanyahu responded angrily to the statements.

"The prime minister does not accept either the tone or the substance of minister Ayalon's statements. They do not reflect the position of the government," his office said.

Netanyahu has rejected US calls for a total construction freeze in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, insisting new homes need to be built in order to accommodate "natural growth" in the population

But in a gesture to Washington he agreed on Tuesday to curtail settlement activity by not issuing any new construction tenders until early 2010.

The US administration welcomed the announcement as a move in the right direction, but critics said it fell far short of demands for a settlement freeze as construction of homes for settlers is continuing.

Yaalon had also embarrassed the government by touring unauthorised settlement outposts on Monday. He and another three cabinet ministers with him criticised the government's decision to raze such wildcat developments.

Public radio's political commentator Hanan Cristal believes Yaalon, a former military chief of staff, is seeking to build a rightwing group within Likud that would help propel him to the post of defence minister. "In the longer run, he hopes to become prime minister," Cristal said.

Yediot Aharonot quoted an unnamed official in Netanyahu's inner circle as saying the premier is well aware that an "extremist group" is forming within Likud.

"The prime minister intends in earnest to advance a peace initiative, and he is going to have to address this issue with seriousness," the newspaper said.

Peace talks with the Palestinians were revived in November 2007 after a seven-year hiatus, but produced few visible results before they ground to a halt again in December last year.

The presence of almost half a million Israeli settlers in the West Bank, including Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, is among the biggest hurdles in the peace process.

The international community considers all Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank to be illegal. Israel rejects the claim, though it has repeatedly vowed to demolish outposts built without government authorisation.
 

Date created : 2009-08-20

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