Netanyahu's settlement freeze ploy attacked by all sides

Israel's prime minister is negotiating with the US on a possible deal to extend a partial settlement freeze for three months in exchange for security and diplomatic incentives.

TEL AVIV // Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, told his cabinet yesterday that he is negotiating with the United States on a possible deal that would call on Israel to extend a partial settlement freeze for three months in exchange for security and diplomatic incentives.

But the potential building moratorium, aimed at re-launching peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, was immediately condemned by the Palestinians. Saeb Erekat, a key Palestinian negotiator, lambasted the plan yesterday for not including a stop to Jewish construction in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as the capital of their future state.

The Palestinian opposition was compounded by a report by the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now suggesting that settlers are likely to make up for any construction lull by aggressively stepping up building after the renewed freeze expires. According to Peace Now, in the month and a half since the previous 10-month moratorium ended, settlers have begun construction on 1,629 homes. That is almost as many as the 1,888 housing starts initiated in the West Bank in all of 2009, it said.

Mr Netanyahu told his government the proposed deal, which he discussed with the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, in New York during a meeting last Thursday that lasted more than seven hours, was "not final".

While the premier did not divulge the details of the pact in his public remarks at the cabinet meeting, the daily newspaper Haaretz reported that it would call on Israel to stop all new residential projects in the occupied West Bank. The proposal would include not only all new building, but also all the projects that started since Israel's previous moratorium ended.

In return, the US would pledge not to demand a further moratorium once the freeze expires.

Furthermore, the White House would ask Congress to supply Israel with 20 fighter jets worth about US$3 billion (Dh11bn). The report did not specify whether the jet delivery would be contingent on Israel signing a peace pact with the Palestinians.

The US would also, in the next year, agree to veto any Palestinian attempts in the UN Security Council to unilaterally advance their statehood without reaching first reaching a peace pact with Israel. Palestinians have threatened to take steps to get the UN to recognise their sovereign state should peace talks collapse.

Israeli media reported that Mr Netanyahu is expected to draw support for the proposal from a narrow majority of his cabinet.

Nevertheless, the plan has met with opposition from leaders of the Israeli pro-settler right, with at least four ministers from Mr Netanyahu's hardline Likud party condemning the plan.

Moshe Yaalon, one of the ministers, called the package agreement a "honey trap". He warned that the extension would hurt Israel's relations with the US, its most powerful ally, by leading to possible tensions once the freeze expires.

Washington has been struggling to renew direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which were suspended when Israel's partial freeze on settlement construction ended.

The US appears to hope that the extension would allow both sides enough time to negotiate an agreement on the borders of the future Palestinian state.