Strains in Israel coalition over US freeze package

JERUSALEM - Cracks emerged in Israel’s right-wing coalition on Tuesday ahead of an expected cabinet vote on whether to accept US inducements to freeze West Bank settlement building so that stalled peace talks can resume.

By (Reuters)

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Published: Tue 16 Nov 2010, 6:54 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 8:14 AM

“I think we are facing a real disagreement,” said Benny Begin, a respected right-wing minister and son of the late Menachem Begin who made peace with Egypt in the late 1970s.

He said Washington’s offer to Israel of 20 F-35 stealth warplanes worth $3 billion was “the bait to push us into the diplomatic trap” by agreeing to a proposed 90-day halt to Jewish settlement building in the occupied territory.

Vice prime minister Dan Meridor confirmed on Tuesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was waiting to receive the offer in writing from Washington before putting it to a vote in cabinet which is expected to convene on Wednesday.

If the letter reflected verbal agreements between Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York talks last week, then the cabinet would vote on it, he said.

In addition to ultranationalist, religious and pro-settler allies in his coalition, Netanyahu faces stiff opposition from within his own right-wing Likud party, where many lawmakers have vehemently stated their opposition to Israeli concessions.

“(We) will do everything we can to prevent a decision on a freeze. We are also appealing to all members of our Likud faction to express their view,” prominent Likud lawmaker Zeev Elkin said on Monday.

Information and Jewish Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein said: “We are advancing in a very bad direction.”

Stakes get higher

US President Barack Obama invested substantial political capital in persuading the Palestinians to resume direct talks with Israel in early September, after months of mediation.

But, true to their warnings, they halted negotiations when Netanyahu refused to extend the 10-month partial construction moratorium on Jewish settlements in the West Bank after it expired at the end of that month.

The Obama administration has now offered Israel diplomatic and defence inducements to renew the freeze for 90 days and give talks a chance, hoping Netanyahu will tell Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas what size and shape of state he can agree to.

The Palestinians suspect they may be presented with plans for a shrunken, fragmented territory studded with Israeli settlements and without East Jerusalem as its capital. The inducements offered to Israel last week would include a promise to use Washington’s veto in the United Nations Security Council to block anti-Israel resolutions, media reports said.

Meridor confirmed the deal includes “an American veto.”

“I hope it will not take too long, but there will be no point if it is not in writing,” he told Army Radio. The outcome “depends on only one thing, that we get from the Americans the letter that we agreed that we would get...”

Obama “regressing”

The Palestinians say such inducements amount to bribes by Obama, who appears to be retreating from his position that Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are illegal and all building must cease.

Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran negotiator and member of the executive of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said Obama’s Middle East peace policy was going backwards.

“The US policy clearly is witnessing a real regression because they are desperately trying to accommodate Israeli demands by paying them in strategic currency in order to obtain some temporarily tactical gains,” she said.

Asking Israel for a 90-day settlement-building postponement “means that the US has become complicit in accepting Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem”, she said.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has said the US offer is a genuine acknowledgement of the strategic risks Israel would be taking if it agrees to create a Palestinian state.

But Begin accused Barak of misreading the situation.

“I think he is wrong and I think he underestimates the American ambition, the American need, to reach agreement on the borders within three months,” he told Army Radio.

Begin forecast that “on the 84th day” of the new freeze, Washington would say: “Look, we are progressing so well, why don’t you add another month?”

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