Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to line up his government behind a U.S. proposal for a renewed settlement freeze aimed at getting Israelis and Palestinians talking again.
Palestinian leaders are also likely to return to the negotiations, even though they say the U.S. plan doesn’t go far enough in reining in Israeli construction, analysts said.
Netanyahu presented the terms of the plan, which include a 90-day freeze on settlement building in the West Bank, to his Cabinet in Jerusalem yesterday.
He will be able to win approval “with significant difficulty,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. While he may suffer “a couple of resignations” from the Cabinet over the issue, “his government won’t collapse,” Steinberg said.
Acceptance of the plan by Israeli and Palestinian officials would keep alive at least temporarily President Barack Obama’s initiative to prod the two sides toward a comprehensive peace agreement. It would still leave them far apart on fundamental issues, said analysts including Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, near Tel Aviv.
“The Americans will want to do everything they can to keep the talks on track,” Spyer said. “But it is a losing game, and everyone knows that.”
Shas May Abstain
While Netanyahu faced criticism yesterday from some members of his own Likud party, including Vice Premier Silvan Shalom, he is counting on support from other Likud members as well as Labor Party ministers to get the proposal approved.
The ultra-Orthodox Shas said it would likely abstain in any vote on the U.S. plan as long as building continued in all areas of Jerusalem, nullifying a potential source of opposition to Netanyahu, Israel Radio said.
"We are talking here about an effort to put behind us the arguments about the building in settlements and to move on to fundamental issues, namely how to arrive at a breakthrough with the Palestinians, the deepening of our relations with the U.S., and strengthening the security of the state of Israel,’’ Defense Minister Ehud Barak, whose Labor Party supports negotiations with the Palestinians, told Israel’s Army Radio today.
Obama said Netanyahu had taken “a very constructive step” in presenting the plan to his Cabinet. Speaking to reporters yesterday on his return from a 10-day trip to Asia, Obama said Netanyahu’s move was “a signal that he’s serious” about resuming negotiations. “I think it’s promising,” Obama said.
Palestinian officials, while not rejecting the proposal outright, criticized it because it doesn’t include a ban on building in east Jerusalem.
Even with that limitation, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is likely in the end to agree to resume direct talks should the Israelis embrace the U.S. plan, said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University.
Abbas, he said, agreed previously to negotiate with Netanyahu without a freeze on east Jerusalem building when the two leaders met in the U.S. to kick off direct talks in early September.
“Abbas and the Palestinians basically do not have other options than the U.S.,” Abusada said. “Palestinians do not want to be blamed by the U.S. for not proceeding with the negotiations. They want the blame put on the Netanyahu government.”
Provision for Warplanes
In return for renewing the moratorium, Israel would get U.S. backing in the United Nations as well as 20 advanced warplanes, according to diplomats familiar with the deal. The U.S. would also commit to refrain from seeking any further halt to settlement construction after the 90 days were up, the diplomats said.
Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib said any freeze on settlement building would have to extend beyond the three months if the negotiations also did.
The renewed freeze would apply to any new construction begun since a previous 10-month moratorium ended on Sept. 26, the diplomats said.
West Bank settlers have begun construction on 1,649 housing units in 63 settlements since the building ban expired, Israel’s Peace Now group said in an e-mailed statement.
Netanyahu and Abbas agreed in September to try to forge an agreement on the framework for a comprehensive peace accord within a year. All the issues at the core of the conflict would be on the table, including the borders of a future Palestinian state, security arrangements for Israel, the status of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Likud ministers, including Shalom, said they expected the U.S. to press for an agreement on the borders of a Palestinian state while the freeze is in effect.
“During those three months the pressure on us will be stronger than ever to decide on our permanent borders and reach an agreement based on those borders,” Shalom told Israel Radio. “If that happens it will be a very big mistake.”
An agreement on final borders would resolve the dispute over settlements and the issue of where Israel could build.
Israel is unlikely to accept that approach. None of the core issues of the conflict can be discussed in isolation, said an official in the prime minister’s office, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to comment on the matter. Israel can’t reach agreement on the final borders of a Palestinian state until it knows the character of that state, the official said.
Both sides are ultimately more concerned about looking “like good guys in front of the Americans” than reaching consensus on politically sensitive issues, said Spyer.
-- With assistance from Julianna Goldman in Washington. Editors: Peter Hirschberg, Ken Fireman, Heather Langan, Karl Maier.