Israeli Cabinet split over fresh building freeze for security

The Guardian, JERUSALEM

Tue, Nov 16, 2010 - Page 6

A US proposal offering security and diplomatic incentives to Israel in exchange for a renewal of a freeze on the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank drew an angry response from several senior Israeli ministers at a Cabinet meeting on Sunday.

Four Cabinet members from the right-wing Likud party opposed Washington’s initiative, in what Israeli media described as heated discussions.

The Palestinian Authority also said that it had not been informed.

“We haven’t heard anything official from the Americans,” said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. “We are waiting for them to contact us.”

The US has reportedly offered Israel a long-term security agreement, which includes the delivery of 20 F-35 fighter jets worth US$3 billion. Washington also vowed to veto any UN security council resolution that could be damaging for Israel.

In return, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is supposed to announce a three-month extension of a settlement building freeze in the West Bank and agree to start talking about the borders of a future Palestinian state. The idea is that once the borders are settled, it will be easier to decide where building can continue and where it can’t.

After Sunday’s fractious Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said the proposal was not final.

Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon was quoted as saying the US proposal was a “honey trap that will plunge us into another crisis.”

Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom and a prominent member of Netanyahu’s party, reportedly said during Sunday’s Likud meeting “it isn’t just about the three months; it’s about a process that will eventually determine our permanent borders.”

About 300,000 Jewish settlers live in the occupied West Bank. Another 200,000 live in East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel after the 1967 war and which Palestinians view as the capital of their future state.

Palestinian officials on Sunday voiced their objections to a plan that does not include an end to Jewish construction in East Jerusalem.

Direct talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis resumed in September under US auspices. A few weeks after the launching of the talks, a 10-month Israeli building moratorium expired. Since then, Israel has consistently refused to extend the building freeze.

The Palestinian Authority has made clear that it will not hold direct talks as long as building continues in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. It argues that the ever growing presence of Jewish settlers undermines the viability of any future Palestinian state.

Analysts believe that Netanyahu will find it difficult to obtain an agreement from his coalition on any kind of freeze. Several members of his Cabinet have repeatedly opposed any further limitation on settlement expansion, including Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, himself a settler.

“We will not accept any freeze — not for three months, not for two months and not for a single day,” said Lieberman during a tour of the Golan Heights on Thursday.