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Netanyahu lobbying top ministers to extend settlement freeze

Still faces stiff opposition in cabinet despite reported US incentives

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Netanyahu lobbying top ministers to extend settlement freeze

Spurred on by heavy pressure and even reported incentives from the Obama administration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to persuade key government ministers to extend the recently expired ten-month settlement freeze for another 60 days to salvage direct peace talks with the Palestinians.

The Israeli cabinet convened on Monday for the first time since the freeze ended on September 26, but failed to take any action on the matter. Netanyahu is now expected to convene his inner-cabinet of seven top ministers on Tuesday to discuss the package of US guarantees reportedly offered in exchange for a two-month extension of the building moratorium in the West Bank.

Within the “Forum of Seven,” dovish ministers Ehud Barak and Dan Meridor are expected to support Netanyahu's push for an extension, while hawks Avigdor Lieberman, Benny Begin, Moshe Ya'alon and Eli Yishai still need convincing.

If that effort is successful, he would immediately convene his wider 15-member security cabinet in hopes of announcing a freeze extension before the Arab League meets on Friday to approve a recommended course of action for the Palestinian Authority.

Reports over recent days indicate the US administration has conveyed to Jerusalem a series of commitments it would undertake in exchange for a 60-day freeze extension, to keep the Palestinians from bolting the renewed peace talks.

The reported incentives would include the US acceding to a continued IDF presence in the Jordan valley to prevent weapons smuggling, increased American military support, a US veto of any anti-Israel resolutions in the UN Security Council for the next year, an agreement not to ask for any more building freeze extensions, and an agreement that the future fate of the settlements be dealt with only as part of a final status agreement with the Palestinians. The US would also commit to upgrading Israel's security capabilities, such as access to advanced weapons and early warning systems, including satellites.

Netanyahu has been quietly bargaining with Washington over the incentives package, which he feels is needed to overcome stiff opposition within his center-right coalition to a freeze extension. He has publicly conceded, as argued by the Right, that the Obama administration failed in its promise to deliver reciprocal gestures from the Palestinians and Arab states once Israel imposed the freeze last November.

Speaking to Likud ministers shortly before today’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu urged them to refrain from talking to the media, lest it ends up “causing an uproar.” Later during the cabinet session, he acknowledged being "in the midst of sensitive diplomatic contacts with the US administration in order to find a solution that will allow the continuation of the talks… We will quietly consider the situation and the complex reality away from the spotlights.”

Netanyahu is facing an uphill battle, as at least half of the government’s 30 ministers are against prolonging the construction freeze. A poll released on Sunday also indicated that a solid majority of the Israeli public also supports renewed settlement construction, by a margin of 54% to 39% opposed.

Some Israeli analysts are viewing the purported US guarantees with skepticism, contending that the two-month time frame appears to be tied to the US mid-term elections in November, and that Israeli leaders have reason to doubt the Obama administration sticking by any such written assurances, since it refused to acknowledge a letter of commitments that President George W. Bush had given to Israel in 2004 in return for the Disengagement from Gaza.

Meantime, Obama has reportedly also sent a letter to PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas promising that if the Palestinians remain in the direct peace talks, the US would pledge to support the establishment of a Palestinian state on the basis of the pre-1967 armistice lines with land swaps.


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