JERUSALEM - The Israeli government is seeking a court ban on the publication of a key report on settlements, a peace group said on Monday, just days before US President George W. Bush begins his landmark visit.In response to a court petition for the state report to be made public, the defence ministry argued it should be kept under wraps "for fear of harming state security and foreign relations," the Peace Now group said.
"State security, as well as protection of foreign relations, are serving as a pretext for the state to try and hide things that are plainly visible," Yariv Oppenheimer, chief of the anti-settlement group, told AFP.
The defence ministry had no immediate comment.
Peace Now and the Movement for Freedom of Information in Israel had filed a petition at a Tel Aviv administrative court asking that the 2006 Spiegel report -- which reportedly revealed widespread building in dozens of settlements -- be released publicly.
Israeli settlements on Arab land captured in the 1967 Six Day War -- all considered illegal by the international community -- are one of the most contentious issues of the decades-old Middle East conflict.
The issue has been a key source of discord between the two sides since they relaunched their peace talks in late November at a US conference after a break of nearly seven years.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has repeatedly said the negotiations cannot succeed unless Israel halts settlement activity, and Washington has criticised Israel over plans to expand settlements that were announced shortly after the US conference.
Bush -- who will stay in Israel and the Palestinian territories from Wednesday to Friday on the first visit by a sitting US president in nine years -- last week called in an interview on Israel to dismantle outposts.
The issue of Israeli settlements, along with continuing military operations in Gaza and the West Bank, are due to be discussed during a meeting between Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday, officials said.
The report in question was compiled in 2006 by Baruch Spiegel, then advisor to the defence minister, and was hailed as the largest database ever compiled by the Israeli government on settlements built beyond the Green Line, Israel's border before the 1967 war.
The Haaretz newspaper reported in October 2006 that the report revealed that widespread building had been carried out in dozens of settlements, often without permits.
Since then, the defence ministry has argued against publicising the report, with officials saying it could harm relations with main ally Washington.
Peace Now estimates that there are currently more than 100 wildcat outposts across the West Bank -- settlements that are not authorised by the state.
More than 260,000 Israelis are estimated to live in government-authorised settlements across the Palestinian territory, with another 200,000 living in settlements in annexed east Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams were due to meet later in the day to discuss the logistics of their relaunched talks.
"I hope that we'll be able to announce before Bush's arrival an agreement on the structural aspect of negotiations, such as who will discuss what," a senior Israeli official told AFP.
The two sides aim to set up a single committee to deal solely with core issues including settlements, refugees and Jerusalem -- the most intractable problems of the conflict that have sunk previous peace deals.
Bush's stay in Israel and the Palestinian territories comes at the start of a regional tour that will also take him to a string of Arab countries.
The trip aims at boosting Middle East peace efforts and to rally regional support to Washington's position that Iran remains a threat, despite a recent US intelligence report that said Tehran had abandoned its clandestine atomic weapons programme in 2003.
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