Israeli envoy on peace talks, settlements

Israeli Ambassador to Athens Arye Mekel expressed concern earlier this month over the Palestinian Authority’s decision to choose this particular time to demand a moratorium over Israeli settlements in the West Bank as a precondition to resume bilateral talks. Speaking to Kathimerini, Mekel claimed that the Palestinians have never before set such a condition for talks, not even under the leadership of Yasser Arafat when settlers were building in the West Bank. The Israeli diplomat, who has also enjoyed a lengthy career as a journalist – he has served, among other posts, as president of Israeli state television and radio – noted that while the moratorium on Israeli settlements had already been in place for 10 months, the Palestinians did not enter into talks until early September. «It would be a mistake to allow a small matter like the issuing of building licenses for a few hundred homes to bring negotiations to a premature end,» said Mekel. He insists that the Israeli government, and public opinion, want peace in the region. When asked about the incendiary statements made on occasion by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who recently stated that it is impossible to reach a deal with the Palestinians in the near future, Mekel noted that every member of the government has developed his own approach to the issue. «Some are more optimistic and others less so, but everyone wants to achieve peace,» he said. The Israeli ambassador added that all the issues – from those concerning borders to the question of Jerusalem – need to be addressed, while noting that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not believe that it is running out of time. «There have always been wars and existentialist threats,» said Mekel. «Sure, we are concerned about the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear weapons program, but we have survived tougher situations in the past,» added the ambassador. Mekel noted that Israel’s military strength is a guarantee of its security, though peace is still the country’s main objective. «My father hoped that I would not have to serve in the army and I had the same hope for my children. Now I have it for my grandchildren,» he revealed. As far as Greek-Israeli ties are concerned, Mekel observed a significant improvement, citing recent visits by top government officials to Athens and Tel Aviv. The diplomat, however, argues that the improvement in ties between the two countries is in no way connected to rapidly deteriorating relations between Israel and Turkey. «We look forward to excellent relations with the Greek government, irrespective of the state of our bilateral ties with Turkey,» he said.