By Tim Witcher (AFP)
UNITED NATIONS — Israel will only stop its disputed settlement building when the Palestinians make a peace agreement, its UN ambassador said ahead of new Security Council talks Monday on the Middle East conflict.
But Israel would be concerned if Arab nations pressed ahead with a campaign to get United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state before any accord, the envoy, Meron Reuben, told AFP in an interview.
Reuben will face new international pressure when he appears before a UN Security Council meeting on Israeli-Palestinian hostilities. The United States and most world powers have backed Palestinian demands that Israel renew a freeze on settlement building in the occupied territories.
"People understand," Reuben declared. "I don't think they agree with the way we are going, but they definitely understand the fact that settlements are not a burden on the peace process and not something that will stop the peace process."
Palestinian negotiators withdrew from new US-brokered talks with Israel two weeks ago when Israel's 10-month moratorium on settlement construction ended. The Israeli government faced new protests on Friday when it approved 238 new homes in East Jerusalem.
"The other side is only looking for pretexts to put obstacles in the road, because they were never an obstacle in the road" in the past, Reuben said.
The ambassador said Israeli settlements in the Sinai desert did not prevent the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt -- "and they were dismantled" -- nor Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.
"They were not an obstacle when we dealt with the Palestinians year-in and year-out since 1993" when the Oslo accords were made.
He highlighted that the moratorium launched at the end of 2009 was unilateral and that the Palestinians and Arab leaders did not accept it at the time.
"They thought it would not help one iota," said Reuben. "And here we are 10 months later and it is the only game in town. Wow! The settlements are the most important thing and they have become a pre-condition."
He added: "The only way may to stop settlements is to come to an agreement. That would be ... if the Palestinians set up a Palestinian state in a demarcated area, then I presume the settlements in that area would definitely stop."
According to Reuben, the settlements, like the borders of any new Palestinian state and refugees from the conflict, must be settled in talks. And the ambassador highlighted that it was barely six weeks into the one year that the United States has sought to relaunch peace efforts.
Some Arab nations have indicated they will ask the United Nations to recognise a Palestinian state if these negotiations remain deadlocked.
In an intervew with Palestinian newspaper, Al-Ayyam, published last week, French Foreign Minister Bernard also did not rule out possible UN Security Council discussion of a Palestinian state, if the deadlock is prolonged.
"It is still talk at the moment," said Reuben. "One would hope that we would not get to that."
"These are heresays at the moment. I am not so sure that it is not something that is being used to pressure different places, but if you look at the Palestinian Authority, it is already recognised by so many tens of nations around the world.
"Officially there would be a very great difference. It will be interesting to see how the world body deals with that because that would be totally different to anything we have seen before on the world stage."
When asked how Israel would react, he said: "I will be frank with you. At this moment I don't know."
Israel "would prefer a Palestinian state to be set up under mutual agreement and not under unilateral declaration. But if it is set up as a unilateral declaration we will have to deal with it.
"We would prefer to see agreement reached between the two sides and not imposed," he said.