Israeli prime minister sounding out Cabinet ministers on possibility of new settlement curbs

By Karin Laub, AP
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Israeli premier weighing new settlement curbs

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israel’s prime minister has been sounding out key Cabinet members on extending a freeze on new construction in West Bank settlements in hopes of keeping peace talks with the Palestinians alive, but he is encountering stiff resistance, Israeli officials said Wednesday.

In Ramallah, key members of the Palestinian leadership — in an increasingly tense waiting mode — expressed optimism that an extension nonetheless was imminent.

The future of President Barack Obama’s ambitious Mideast peace effort remained uncertain Wednesday as the U.S. pressed ahead with efforts to broker a compromise over the settlement issue, which has threatened to derail negotiations just a month after they were launched at the White House.

Israel’s normally talkative leadership has been almost completely silent in recent days as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrestled with what appeared to be significant U.S. pressure to agree to some sort of extension of the construction slowdown — which was in effect 10 months and expired on Sept. 26, just weeks after the resumption of peace talks.

The Palestinians have threatened to walk out of the talks if Israel refuses to reinstate it — and another deadline of sorts has emerged with Friday’s planned summit of the 22-nation Arab League, where the Palestinians expect support for whatever they decide.

Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, has been shuttling between the sides in an effort to find a magic formula — sparking a variety of contradictory media reports about sweeteners the United States is prepared to offer Netanyahu if he reverses his promises to hard-line backers that the slowdown would not be renewed.

“There are ongoing efforts to ensure the continuation of the direct peace talks,” said an Israeli official.

Another Israeli official, also speaking on condition of anonymity because Netanyahu has ordered a media blackout, said the premier was sounding out colleagues on a proposal to extend the slowdown for two months. Four of the seven ministers were opposed, the official said. Netanyahu’s own position was not clear.

The Israelis are seeking various “assurances” in return for the extension.

Officials said the Israeli wish list included additional American military support, U.S. guarantees to veto anti-Israeli resolutions at the United Nations and guarantees that Washington would not impose an accord on Israel or force a full withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians seek both areas as part of a future state.

Israeli officials also said Netanyahu has sent indirect messages to the Arab League asking for a postponement of its vote this weekend to give him more time to work out a deal.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York that in recent days he had spoken to Netanyahu, Mitchell and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“All told me that they were committed to finding solutions to the problems immediately before us,” Ban said. “All want to keep the peace process going.”

The U.N. chief, who met Wednesday with Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, urged Israel “to restore settlement restraint” and urged Arab leaders meeting in Sirte, Libya, this week “to keep doors open and support president Abbas.”

In Ramallah, several senior Palestinian officials, all also speaking privately for fear of harming the diplomatic efforts, said they expected a resolution before Friday’s Arab League meeting.

The Palestinian officials said if the settlement slowdown is extended for two months and talks resume, the period would be used to try to hammer out an agreement on a border between Israel and a future Palestinian state.

About 300,000 Israelis live in the roughly 100 West Bank settlements, interspersed among 2.5 million Palestinians. An additional 180,000 Israelis live in Jewish neighborhoods Israel has built in east Jerusalem.

Middle East specialist Aaron David Miller, a former official at the U.S. State Department, said guarantees offered by Obama included vast military hardware, support at the U.N., an extended Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley and regionwide security assurances from Arab states.

However, several of the Palestinian officials said they had been told by the Americans that the Jordan Valley pledge was not included in the package.

Miller said U.S. officials expected a deal with Netanyahu shortly and hope to use the 60-day window to work out the borders between Israel and a future Palestine. Miller refused to say where he got his information, though he remains in contact with key policymakers.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has pointed out several times that once a border is drawn, the settlement issue becomes irrelevant, because it would be clear to both sides that there would be no Israeli settlements in a Palestinian state.

One Palestinian official familiar with the talks said the United States was agreeing to block any anti-Israel resolutions at the U.N. Security Council — something Washington has frequently done in the past.

American diplomats say only that ideas have been floated in talks, but no formal proposals have been made.

“This is a difficult moment. It’s one that we anticipated,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley Wednesday. “If we can successfully work through this, then the negotiations will continue.”

Last month Obama presided over the renewal of negotiations after nearly two years with no direct peace talks.

But the Palestinians said all along they would not keep talking if Israel did not renew its 10-month settlement construction slowdown, which expired Sept. 26.

The measure banned most housing starts but allowed completion of apartments already under construction, as well as public buildings and roads. Also, it did not apply to Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, claimed by the Palestinians as the capital of their future state, though Israel imposed a similar, albeit undeclared, slowdown in east Jerusalem as well.

Israel refused to extend the slowdown, saying it was a one-time gesture, but the U.S. has been pressing publicly and privately for its reinstatement to ensure continuation of the talks. Obama has set a goal of an agreement within a year.

Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations.

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