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Barak: Israel needs missile shield

(AP) JERUSALEM – Israel won’t be able to carry out a major West Bank pullback for 2 1/2 years because it first needs a missile defense system in place to protect it against Palestinian rocket fire, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a parliamentary committee Monday.

Barak’s timetable — announced a day before a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders and as preparations move ahead for a U.S.-sponsored peace conference in the fall — cast doubt on chances of a quick breakthrough in stalled Mideast peacemaking.

A former prime minister whose term in office from 1999 to 2001 was marked by unsuccessful attempts to make peace with Syria and the Palestinians, Barak has taken a hard line on security since becoming defense minister in June, as he positions himself for another race for the top office.

“The things we see in Gaza do not allow us to change our actions in (the West Bank),” Barak was quoted as saying, referring to daily rocket fire at Israel from Gaza by Palestinian militants. He said it would take about 2 1/2 years to develop and deploy a system to protect Israel’s center from potential rocket attacks from the West Bank.

Barak made the statement at a meeting of parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, according to a participant. Coming ahead of a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem on Tuesday, it drew fire from Palestinian officials.

“I find it very hard to comprehend such statements when the prime minister and the Palestinian president are doing their best in order to achieve the endgame,” meaning a peace agreement, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told The Associated Press.

Militants have launched thousands of rockets into southern Israel from Gaza in the past seven years of fighting, killing 12 Israelis, according to Israeli military figures. The fire did not decrease after Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of Gaza two years ago.

Because rockets from the West Bank could threaten the country’s population centers and paralyze its only airport outside of Tel Aviv, a missile defense system has become a central Israeli condition for a withdrawal.

Israel now has in place around Gaza only an early warning system that gives residents a few seconds’ notice before the rocket hits.

Israel’s state-owned arms manufacturer Rafael is developing a system to counter small rockets. The Arrow, a joint Israeli-American system effective against long-range missiles, is operational.

Also at Monday’s meeting, Barak would not commit to removing roadblocks in the West Bank, saying his “primary commitment” was to protecting Israelis. Barak said only that army officers were studying the matter.

The Palestinians say Israel’s checkpoints strangle their economy and cause considerable hardship to civilians.

“Barak hardly mentions peace, and when he does it’s accompanied by reservations,” said dovish lawmaker Yossi Beilin, who was at the meeting.

The deputy head of the Shin Bet security agency told the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday that Hamas militants have smuggled 40 tons of weapons into Gaza since the group took control of the territory in June, and that the threat of attacks on Israelis is on the rise. The official’s name cannot be released under Israeli security rules.

Israel blames Hamas for the deaths of more than 250 people in suicide bombings.

Abbas’ dismissal of the Hamas-led government after the Hamas takeover in Gaza and his establishment of a rival government of moderates in the West Bank has raised hopes that peace talks, broken off in 2001, could resume.

Palestinians want talks on core issues that could lead to a peace treaty, such as final borders. Israel prefers to limit the discussions to general principles and day-to-day matters.

Israeli officials said Abbas and Olmert will meet in Jerusalem on Tuesday, the latest in a series of get-togethers meant to boost the Palestinian leader in his power struggle with Hamas and to lay the groundwork for resuming peace negotiations.

Palestinian officials did not confirm the date or location of the meeting.

Olmert and Abbas met earlier this month in the West Bank town of Jericho, their first meeting inside Palestinian territory.

Also Monday, Palestinian police rescued an Israeli soldier who strayed into the West Bank town of Jenin, where a mob torched his car. Three Palestinian officers who saw the mob descend on the car spotted the officer inside and took him to their headquarters, police said. They later handed him over unharmed to Israeli troops.

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August 28, 2007 - Posted by | Blogroll, Homeland security, news, personal, politics, random, religion, Terrorism, Terrorism In The U.S., Terrorism News, Uncategorized, War-On-Terror

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