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Israeli foreign minister says settlement freeze unacceptable

RIA Novosti

10:2518/06/2009 WASHINGTON, June 18 (RIA Novosti) - Israel cannot accept a U.S. proposal that it suspend the construction of new settlements in Palestinian territory, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said.

"We cannot accept this vision about absolutely completely freezing settlements," Israel's top diplomat said on Wednesday after his first talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington.

The U.S. has been pressing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who came to power in March, to suspend construction in the West Bank in a bid to boost peace efforts.

Lieberman also said that Israel was in favor of maintaining "natural growth" in the West Bank.

However, he signaled the Israeli government's readiness for "immediate talks" with the Palestinian National Authority.

Clinton reiterated U.S. opposition to Israel's settlement expansion, illegal under international law and counter to Jerusalem's obligations under the 2003 U.S.-backed roadmap for peace. Settlement construction began after Israel's 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem during the Arab-Israeli War.

"We want to see a stop to the settlements," Clinton said. "We think that is an important and essential part of pursuing the efforts leading to a comprehensive peace agreement."

The U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace, George Mitchell, is expected to hold talks with Netanyahu in Paris on June 25.

In a speech on Sunday, Netanyahu said Tel Aviv would accept a demilitarized Palestinian state that agreed to recognize Israel. Other conditions were that descendants of refugees ousted in 1948 would be barred from returning to their homes, Jewish outposts would remain in place, and East Jerusalem could not be its capital.

The half-hour speech, seen as response to U.S. President Barack Obama's recent address to the Muslim world and pressure by Washington on Israel to back plans for a Palestinian state was categorically rejected by the Palestinians, who said it offered no real concessions.

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