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Netanyahu Presents U.S. Freeze Plan to Israel Cabinet

Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood
A section of Israel's security barrier stands on the edge of the West Bank city of Bethlehem, with the neighborhood of Gilo in the background, in this file photo. Photographer: Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today presented the terms of a U.S. proposal for renewing peace talks with the Palestinians to his Cabinet, which includes a 90-day freeze on West Bank settlement building.

The proposal “is still going through the formulation stage between our team and that of the Americans,” Netanyahu said in comments broadcast on Israel Army Radio. The Israeli leader said that if and when the plan “passes this formulation stage” he would take it to the security cabinet for a vote.

Israel would get U.S. backing in the United Nations as well as 20 advanced warplanes in return for renewing the building moratorium, according to diplomats familiar with the U.S. proposal. Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib said the Palestinians hadn’t received the plan from the U.S. and that any freeze should last as long as peace talks are taking place.

President Barack Obama, speaking to reporters on his return from a 10-day trip to Asia, praised Netanyahu for taking what he described as “a very constructive step” in presenting the U.S. plan to his cabinet.

“I think it’s promising,” Obama said. “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 these final status issues that would render the settlement issue moot.”

Obama said Netanyahu’s actions are “a signal that he’s serious” and he hopes the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “start negotiations immediately.”

Coalition Members Opposed

Members of Netanyahu’s coalition, including ministers from his Likud party, said they opposed the proposal.

“If we agree to a freeze, 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,” said Vice Premier Silvan Shalom, of Likud. “If that happens it will be a very big mistake.”

Direct negotiations between Abbas, initiated in a Sept. 1 White House ceremony, stalled less than a month later when a partial 10-month Israeli freeze on West Bank construction came to an end. Abbas has said he won’t resume talks unless Israel stops all settlement building.

East Jerusalem

Netanyahu brought the U.S. proposal, which was made during an eight-hour meeting Nov. 11 in New York with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to a forum of seven ministers late yesterday.

The proposed moratorium doesn’t cover building in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians seek as the capital of a future state. The U.S. would commit to refrain from seeking any further halt to settlement construction after the 90 days were up, diplomats familiar with the offer said.

“We have a problem with excluding east Jerusalem, because east Jerusalem is occupied according to the position of all countries, not just us,” Khatib said in a telephone interview.

Netanyahu and Abbas agreed in September to try to reach 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.

Ongoing Construction

The new 90-day freeze proposed by the U.S. includes any new construction begun since the 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 freeze expired, Israel’s Peace Now group said in an e-mailed statement today.

“The government of Israel must renew the freeze in a way that will stop all settlement activity, including the projects that started in the last few weeks,” said Peace Now, which monitors such building efforts.

Palestinian leaders have said they will seek recognition of an independent state from the UN Security Council if talks don’t resume and Israel doesn’t stop construction in the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem captured in the 1967 war.

The American plan for renewing talks assures Israel of a U.S. veto in the Security Council and other international bodies on any proposal that would try to impose a Middle East peace agreement on Israel, delegitimize the Jewish state or negate its right to self-defense, the diplomats said.

Warplane Offer

Representative Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican who is in line to become majority leader when his party takes control of the U.S. House in January, met with Netanyahu on Nov. 10. He said Obama’s administration should “make absolutely clear” that the U.S. would veto any UN measure about establishing a Palestinian state.

As part of the proposal, the Obama administration would also ask Congress to approve supplying 20 advanced warplanes, worth about $3 billion, to Israel, the diplomats said without saying when the jets would be delivered.

Netanyahu’s visit to the U.S. last week was marked by U.S. criticism of Israeli plans to build some 1,000 new homes in east Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed in a move never internationally recognized.

Points of View

Obama on Nov. 9 called Israeli plans to build hundreds of new homes in east Jerusalem not “helpful when it comes to peace negotiations.” Netanyahu said Israel has the right to build everywhere in the city.

In a Nov. 9 interview with Bloomberg Television, Netanyahu said Palestinian complaints about Israeli settlement construction were “a minor issue” that has become “way overblown.”

About 500,000 Jews have moved to the West Bank and east Jerusalem since Israel captured the territories in the 1967 war. The UN says the settlements are illegal, and the International Committee of the Red Cross says they breach the Fourth Geneva Convention governing actions on occupied territory. Obama has said the settlements aren’t legitimate.

Israel says the settlements don’t fall under the convention because the territory wasn’t recognized as belonging to any country before the 1967 war, in which Israel prevailed, and therefore isn’t occupied.

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