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Israel's left regroups with calls for settlements freeze, peace talks

AFP, 9 May 2001

Israel's political left wing, still reeling from its electoral debacle in February, is struggling to get back on track by mobilizing against settlements and in favour of an Egyptian-Jordanian peace plan.

Former Labour justice minister Yossi Beilin has launched the coalition for peace comprising dissident members of parliament from the Labour party -- which is part of right-wing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's ruling coalition -- and the leftist Meretz party.

It is the first time a coordination meeting between different elements of Israel's left has been held since Sharon was elected by a landslide victory over outgoing Labour prime minister Ehud Barak in February.

The group will focus on halting all construction in the settlements and resuming peace talks based on the Egyptian-Jordanian initiative.

A settlement freeze is of paramount interest to Israel, said Beilin, adding that the settlements were among the main factors leading to the continued bloodshed between Israel and the Palestinians.

We have been left without peace, and with settlements, Beilin said.

The group will also call on Israel to accept the conclusions of the international commission led by former US senator George Mitchell on the causes of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation.

The Mitchell commission recommended a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while urging President Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership to do all they can to put a halt to violence.

The committee stressed that the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organisation are the only legitimate representatives to negotiate with Israel.

Meretz's Zahava Galron said the group's aim was to unify all of the peace camp's forces against a government that has done nothing to renew negotiations.

The Labour party's main task has been as a fig leaf to continue the policies of the right, she said.

The central goal is putting a halt to the settlements. Settlements are violence. When they talk of 'natural growth' -- there are 9,844 empty housing units in the settlements, enough room for three more years growth.

Since the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians, the number of Jewish settlers has increased 70 percent -- from 125,000 to 200,000 -- not counting the 200,000 Israelis living in 11 settler quarters in occupied east Jerusalem, according to official figures.

In the same period, almost 40,000 houses have been built in the settlements, according to Peace Now.

There is no doubt that we have a hard task ahead of us, given the deflated spirit of the Israeli population because of violence. But we are encouraged by a poll published Friday saying that 62 percent of Israelis are for a freeze of settlements, Peace Now spokesman Didi Remez said.

But the coalition faces an uphill battle against the Israeli government, which on Wednesday defended its plan to boost funding for Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by 375 million dollars, in the face of US criticism of the move.

The thought that if you freeze the settlements then there will be peace and quiet, doesn't stand the test of reality, Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin told AFP.

Top Palestinian negotiator Saed Erakat, meanwhile, urged Sharon Wednesday to stop building new settlements and to immediately evacuate all existing settlements.

These Jew-only enclaves built on confiscated Palestinian land are provocative, contribute to the continued oppression of the Palestinian people, and are contradictory to the spirit of peaceful co-existence which we are striving for, Erakat said.