Netanyahu presents incentives for extending building freeze

By Joel Greenberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2010; 7:47 PM

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sunday presented his cabinet with a package of diplomatic and security incentives offered by the Obama administration to extend a building freeze in West Bank settlements for 90 days and resume stalled peace negotiations.

The incentives were hashed out in more than seven hours of talks between Netanyahu and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York on Thursday. Netanyahu told the cabinet that details of the proposal were being finalized by Israeli and U.S. teams, and that he would submit the completed plan to a smaller group of ministers known as the security cabinet, which is expected to approve it.

"I insist that any proposal meet Israel's security needs, both in the immediate term and regarding the threats we face in the coming decade," Netanyahu said in public remarks at the start of the cabinet meeting.

Palestinian officials said they were awaiting official word from the United States about the proposal but expressed concern that the extended freeze would not include East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians seek as the future capital of a state.

President Obama called Netanyahu's actions "promising."

"I commend Prime Minister Netanyahu for taking, I think, a very constructive step," Obama said aboard Air Force One, during the flight home from his 10-day trip to Asia. "It's not easy for him to do, but I think it's a signal that he is serious."

According to diplomats familiar with the incentives, they include asking Congress to approve supplying Israel with 20 advanced fighter jets worth about $3 billion and a U.S. commitment to oppose moves at the U.N. and other international bodies to impose terms of a peace agreement on Israel and to de-legitimize it or deny its right to self-defense. Talks also would begin on far-ranging bilateral security understandings that would buttress a future peace deal with the Palestinians.

Israel would suspend new construction in West Bank settlements for 90 days, an abeyance that would apply to any building begun after a previous freeze expired Sept. 26. The U.S. would not ask for an additional extension under the terms of the package. The freeze would not apply to construction in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after capturing the area in 1967 and claims as part of its united capital.

Peace talks relaunched in early September broke off after the building freeze expired, and the Palestinians said they would not resume negotiations unless there was a complete halt to settlement construction, which they said was eating up territory they seek for a future state. Netanyahu had refused to renew the freeze, citing pressures in his governing coalition, which is dominated by right-wing parties that support the settlements.

The three-month extension is supposed to allow time for efforts to reach agreement on the borders of a future Palestinian state and to clarify areas where Israel could continue building and where it could not.

An Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely, said Israel was prepared to negotiate borders, but, "We want to make sure other issues are discussed in parallel," such as the nature of the Palestinian state and Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish state.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said Palestinians would formulate their position on the proposal after receiving official notification from Washington. But, he added, exclusion of East Jerusalem from the extended moratorium was "a major problem" for Palestinians.

The prospect of a renewed building freeze raised objections from some senior ministers in Netanyahu's Likud party.

Silvan Shalom, a member of the security cabinet, told Israel Radio that negotiating borders during the building moratorium meant that Israel would be bargaining away territorial assets while other core issues of the conflict with the Palestinians remained unresolved.

Despite the vocal opposition from some ministers, analysts said Netanyahu appeared capable of securing a narrow majority in the security cabinet for an extension of the freeze.

Eli Yishai, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a key member in the governing coalition, said that he and a colleague could abstain from a vote if building in the settlements were allowed to continue unimpeded after the freeze and in East Jerusalem. Staff writer Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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