US freeze proposal not yet final, says Netanyahu

Sunday, November 14, 2010

JERUSALEM - Israel’s cabinet bowed Sunday to weeks of US pressure to debate a proposal to freeze construction on West Bank settlements, in order to force peace talks with the Palestinians out of limbo.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the ministers at the start of the meeting in Jerusalem that the plan was not yet final and “is still being formulated by Israeli and the American teams”.

The plan, reportedly drawn up during a meeting Thursday in New York between Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, would see Israel freeze construction for 90 days.

In return, the US would give Israel support at the UN and a supply of 20 advanced fighter aircraft.

Palestinian senior negotiator Saeb Erekat said that the plan would not be viable unless the freeze included settlements in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of their future state.

He told broadcaster al-Jazeera that the Palestinians have not yet been updated about the package offered to Israel.

Flying back to Washington after a 10-day tour of Asia, US President Barack Obama told reporters aboard Air Force One that the plan for a 90-day freeze is “promising”.

“We’ve been in contact with both the Israelis and the Palestinians to make sure that we use this opportunity to start negotiating as quickly as possible on some of the final status issues that would render the settlement issue moot,” Obama said.

“But I commend Prime Minister Netanyahu for taking, I think, a very constructive step. It’s not easy for him to do. But I think it’s a signal that he’s serious, and my hope is that he and (Palestinian President Mahmoud) Abbas start negotiations immediately.”

According to a government statement, Netanyahu said that when the plan was ready, he would present it to the cabinet.

“In any case, I insist that any proposal meet the state of Israel’s security needs, both in the immediate term and vis-a-vis the threats that we will face in the coming decade,” he said.

Direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks got underway at the beginning of September, after a hiatus of nearly two years, and stalled a few weeks later, when Israel’s partial moratorium on settlement construction expired and was not renewed.

Abbas insisted that the Palestinians would not negotiate until and unless the freeze was renewed.

Netanyahu refused to commit publicly to any new freeze and faces considerable opposition from within his mainly nationalist coalition should he do so.

Since the 10-month freeze expired, the US has been pressuring Israel to adopt a new measure to allow the peace talks to go ahead.

Under the latest proposal, Washington has assured Israel of a veto in the UN Security Council on any proposal that would try to impose a Middle East peace agreement on the country, The Jerusalem Post reported Sunday.

Obama would also ask the US Congress to approve supplying Israel with 20 advanced fighter planes, worth 3 billion dollars.

Despite the incentives, Netanyahu may have trouble getting the plan through his cabinet, with several ministers voicing opposition.

Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon, a former military chief of staff, called the plan a “honey trap that will plunge us into another crisis with the Americans in the future, in three months or maybe even before then”.

Ministers Silvan Shalom, Gilad Erdan and Yuli Edelstein, like Ya’alon members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, each expressed opposition to the plan.

Netanyahu’s largest coalition partner, the ultra-nationalist Yisrael B’Teinu party, said it too opposed a new freeze, and the parliamentary whip of the small Jewish Home party said he would work to pull his party out of the coalition if the plan was implemented.

But the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, the third-largest party in the governing coalition whose electorate is unabashedly hawkish, said it would abstain when the new plan was voted on by the government.

In return, it wanted construction in Jerusalem to resume immediately, and for the US to give guarantees that construction in settlements could resume once the new freeze was ended.

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