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Israel defense chief: Military option still open
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    WASHINGTON — Israel’s defense minister said Tuesday he has told top U.S. officials that Israel won’t rule out a military strike against Iran.
    Ehud Barak, a former Israeli prime minister, is in the middle of two days of meetings at the White House, Pentagon and State Department. He told reporters that he has said during those meetings that there is still time to pursue tough diplomacy with Iran. At the same time he has told the Americans that Iran poses a major threat to the whole world, and that for Israel ‘‘no option would be removed from the table.’’
    The United States also has not ruled out a military strike to stop Iran’s presumed drive for nuclear weapons, but an Israeli strike is considered more likely in the short term.
    Barak would not say what advice he’s been getting from the Americans.
    For their part, U.S. officials are calling Israeli plans to expand Jewish settlements a problem in reaching a peace deal with Palestinians. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has sessions planned this week with the top Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators. She is seeing each of them separately, and at a joint session scheduled to last more than two hours.
    Rice raised the settlement issue Tuesday when she met with Barak at the State Department. Plans were announced just last week for what could be a major expansion on the West Bank.
    Barak called the plans a ‘‘procedural move,’’ and added that the settlement issue is always under discussion with U.S. officials.
    A key committee has approved construction of the first new Jewish settlement in the West Bank in a decade. But it’s not clear the new housing will be built.
    The news infuriated Palestinians, who said the decision could cripple peace efforts.
    Barak will have the final say over whether plans for the Maskiot settlement go ahead, and he has been expected to approve the program within weeks.
    The new houses would be built in the Jordan Valley Rift, an arid north-south strip that forms Israel’s eastern flank with Jordan.
    Israel originally announced in 2006 that it would build Maskiot, then froze the plan after international outcry. But earlier this year, nine Israeli families settled in mobile homes at the site, which Palestinians claim as part of a future state.
    A number of Israeli politicians, however, have said Israel needs to retain control of the Jordan Valley as a buffer between their country and a future Palestinian state and Jordan. The issue remains to be resolved in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
    The settlers already at the site say around two dozen more families are waiting to join them.
    When talks were renewed last year after a seven-year breakdown, Israel promised not to establish new settlements in the West Bank. The two sides set a goal of reaching a final peace accord by the end of the year, but have since scaled back their ambitions, in part because disputes over Israeli settlements have impeded progress on peacemaking.
    Palestinians want the final deal to outline the formation of a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. Israel captured those territories in the 1967 Mideast war.
    Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert backed away Monday from a target date — announced with great fanfare at a U.S.-hosted Mideast peace conference last November — for reaching a deal with the Palestinians by year’s end.
    Olmert said the sides will need more time to bridge differences over Jerusalem, long the toughest sticking point in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
    ‘‘There is no practical chance of reaching a comprehensive understanding on Jerusalem’’ during 2008, Olmert told a closed-door meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, according to an official present at the gathering.
    At the same time, Olmert said Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem pose a danger to Israelis, hinting that Israel might want to cede control of those areas.
    In recent weeks, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have scaled back their ambitious goal of signing a deal before President Bush leaves office in January, saying the best that could be hoped for was the outline of an agreement.
    Olmert’s comment Monday was the clearest indication yet that the Israeli leadership sees that target as unattainable.

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