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Netanyahu wants Obama to accept Bush letter to trade for freeze

PA demanding border be set during proposed two-month extension

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Netanyahu wants Obama to accept Bush letter to trade for freeze

The Obama administration has put heavy pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend the recently expired building freeze by two months in a frantic effort to salvage direct peace talks with the Palestinians, and various reports indicate Netanyahu is seeking in return that US President Barack Obama affirm the letter of former President George W. Bush of April 2004 in which he pledged to support Israel’s right to “defensible borders” and its annexation of the major settlement blocs in any final peace deal with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu needs firm commitments from the US in order to garner the support of reluctant cabinet ministers for continuing the ten-month freeze, which Israel says was a one-time unilateral gesture. It appears he has focused in on affirmation of the Bush letter as a trade-off, which the Obama administration has dismissed so far as no longer relevant – even though it was given as assurance for the Israeli Disengagement from Gaza the next year.

Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren told The Washington Post on Wednesday that the US indeed has offered Israel "incentives" geared toward encouraging Netanyahu's cabinet to approve “a limited extension of 2 or 3 months." US officials have been denying that Washington has made any such offers in writing, and some have questioned the short time-frame, which appears to be geared towards getting Obama past the US mid-term elections.

"We're at a critical stage in the process," admitted US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley on Wednesday. "We don't want to see the parties step away from this process, and we continue to offer ideas to both sides as to how to navigate through the settlement issue that currently confronts us."

For his part, Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas told a meeting of the PLO leadership in Amman on Thursday that he will not back down from his threat to abandon direct talks with Israel if building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank continues, insisting that the Palestinians have fulfilled every one of their obligations toward a peace settlement while Israel has fulfilled none.

But top PA negotiator Nabil Sha'ath said Thursday that the Palestinians would accept the US proposed extension provided the two sides can reach an agreement on the borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state within those two months.

Meantime, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that he did not believe Netanyahu would give in to pressure from Washington to extend the settlement freeze or to carve up Jerusalem.

“I faithfully believe that Netanyahu won’t think about dividing Jerusalem,” Rivlin said. “He might agree to autonomy for Muslims at their holy sites, but not to sovereignty. I am positive that Netanyahu is incapable of dividing Jerusalem because he realizes that it is the heart of the matter, the reason for the state to exist.

In related news, British Foreign Minister William Hague told a meeting of the UK Conservative Friends of Israel in Birmingham on Wednesday that continued building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank undermines Israel’s long-term security.

“This government gives its strong support to the Middle East peace process, and to a two-state solution which brings security to both Israelis and Palestinians,” Hague said. “That is why in recent days we have been pressing the Israeli government to hold back the settlement building which makes talking harder and therefore the long-term position of their own country less secure.”


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