Lieberman: Settlements are not an obstacle to peace

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Friday that he believed the U.S. and Israel will resolve their differences over Jewish settlements, and accused the Palestinians of using the issue to avoid peace talks.

Talking to reporters after meeting United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in the U.S., Lieberman said settlements are not an obstacle to peace, and reiterated that Israel is ready to resume direct talks with the Palestinians immediately.

"The settlements are not an obstacle to advancing peace," Lieberman said on Friday. "In the 19 years before 1967, there were no settlements but there was terror. During the disengagement, Israel evacuated 24 settlements and in response got Hamas rule in Gaza and rockets on Sderot."

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"It's very clear that ... the settlements ... [are] an excuse for those that tried to avoid any peace talks," he said.

Ban, meanwhile, stressed that settlement construction must end and warned of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. He also spoke with Lieberman about the growing nuclear crisis in North Korea.

This visit marked Lieberman's first to the UN since he was appointed foreign minister. He is scheduled to fly to Canada Sunday for a brief visit.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a backer of Jewish settlers, insists that construction must be allowed to continue to accommodate natural growth of the settler population in the West Bank through births and marriages.

The Palestinians want the West Bank and Gaza Strip for their future state and say they won't renew peace talks until Israel agrees to freeze settlement construction and negotiate Palestinian statehood.

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is backing the Palestinians on the settlement issue - demanding a freeze in hopes of promoting peace talks, encouraging the Arab world to make overtures toward Israel, and improving U.S. relations with Arab states.

Neither side gave any ground when Lieberman met U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday in Washington.

"It's not a main issue in our region," Lieberman said, adding: "If I try to compare what happens now in Iran and what happens in Afghanistan and in Pakistan to the problem of the settlements, it's very clear what ... must be the priority of the international community," Lieberman said Friday.

When asked whether the dispute with the U.S. can be resolved, Lieberman, speaking in English, said "we have one disagreement, and I think that even in this point we can formulate understandings - we can achieve understandings."

Later, speaking in Hebrew, he said Israel was working hard to reach an agreement with the U.S. and referred to Netanyahu's speech earlier this month in which he endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state for the first time.

"I believe that after the prime minister's speech, there is a new positive approach to this issue, and even there we'll find a formula that will bridge the differences," Lieberman said.

The settlement issue is expected to dominate Netanyahu's meeting next week with U.S. special Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell.

Netanyahu's endorsement of the idea of a Palestinian state listed a series of conditions rejected by the Palestinians - including a refusal to share control over the holy city of Jerusalem, demilitarization of a Palestinian state, and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. But Lieberman said there is now a chance to start a dialogue with the Palestinians.

"We don't have any precondition," Lieberman said. "I think that we [have a] right for our position. The Palestinians have [a] right for their position and ... it's important to start with talks without preconditions and every side will try to convince the other side."

Lieberman, who is a settler, is the founder of the Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) Party, which draws support from Russian-speaking immigrants like himself. But his hard-line rhetoric has won a large following beyond that base.

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