JERUSALEM - Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Sunday ruled out a return to Israel's 1967 borders, as its largely right-wing cabinet rebuffed calls to remove Jewish settlements built on Palestinian land.
"A return to the borders of '67 today, as we are being pressured to do, would not end the conflict, would not guarantee peace or security," Lieberman told reporters ahead of a government meeting.
"It would simply move the conflict to within the '67 borders," he said, referring to Israel, as the cabinet met for the first time since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's talks with US President Barack Obama in Washington.
During his trip, the hawkish Israeli premier was told repeatedly by the administration and Congressional leaders that the Jewish state must stop settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, one of the main stumbling blocks in the halting Middle East peace process.
But on Sunday, most ministers in the right-leaning cabinet criticised the idea of dismantling any settlements, including so-called outposts -- those the Israeli government itself considers illegal.
Lieberman said that dismantling the outposts should come in the framework of the international 2003 "roadmap" for Middle East peace, a step-by-step plan that foresees the creation of a Palestinian state.
Under its first phase, Israel committed to removing outposts and the Palestinians undertook to halt violence.
But Lieberman, known for controversial statements, said the plan may have to be re-examined.
"Removing outposts should be part of an overall policy and cannot be patchwork," Lieberman said, referring to Israeli settlements in the West Bank that were not authorised by the Israeli government.
"The correct outline is the roadmap, which we might have to re-adopt on all its stages," he said. "And if it is necessary within the framework of the roadmap to remove outposts, we will do so."
His position was largely echoed by other ministers in Netanyahu's hardline cabinet that was sworn in on March 31.
"We shouldn't accept diktats and we shouldn't dismantle (settlement) outposts," said Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
"I don't see any reason to dismantle outposts before we decide on a unified policy. Nevertheless we should not get into a clash with the Americans."
Defence Minister Ehud Barak, whose Labour party is the most liberal member of the Netanyahu cabinet, backed the idea of removing outposts, but spoke of 22 such structures -- a number several times lower than that of watchdog groups.
"We should deal with the remaining 22 (outposts) in a responsible and correct way," Barak said. "First by talking and if that doesn't work then unilaterally."
Under the "roadmap" plan, Israel undertook to dismantle all outposts in the West Bank constructed after March 2001. An Israeli commission later determined there were 26 such structures.
The Peace Now anti-settlement group, however, says that more than 50 outposts were put up since March 2001 and that at present the West Bank has more than 100 outposts.
The international community considers all Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal.