Israeli cabinet considers U.S. proposal on West Bank freeze

Israel’s prime minister briefed his cabinet Sunday on a package of security and diplomatic incentives the U.S. has proposed to entice Israel to renew limits on settlement construction and revive moribund peace talks with the Palestinians.

JERUSALEM — Israel’s prime minister briefed his cabinet Sunday on a package of security and diplomatic incentives the U.S. has proposed to entice Israel to renew limits on settlement construction and revive moribund peace talks with the Palestinians.

The proposed 90-day moratorium could give both sides time to work out an agreement on the future borders of Israel and a Palestinian state, making it clear where Israel can continue to build and where it cannot. But the plan swiftly ran into opposition from Palestinians and Israeli cabinet members alike.

The Palestinians were unhappy because the proposed construction curbs would apply only to the West Bank, not east Jerusalem, their hoped-for capital. Still, they did not reject it outright, saying they would consult among themselves and with Arab leaders.

Rumblings of opposition also came hawkish members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, with one small party reportedly threatening to quit if the deal went through.

Netanyahu told his cabinet that details of the proposed deal were still being finalized by Israeli and U.S. teams. He said when the proposal was complete, he would bring it before an inner cabinet of decision-makers.

“Every proposal will consider the security needs of the state of Israel, both immediate needs and threats in the coming decade,” he said.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Americans had not officially relayed details about the proposal to the Palestinians, but “they know we have a major problem in not including east Jerusalem.”

He said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would put the U.S. plan before Palestinian decision-makers and call for an immediate session of Arab League officials before announcing an official decision.

However, both the Israelis and the Palestinians would be hard-pressed to turn down President Barack Obama as he seeks to realize a major foreign policy goal: resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with all that implies for easing tensions in the wider Middle East.

Peace talks ground to a halt in late September, just three weeks after they began at the White House, after Israel resisted U.S. and Palestinian pressure to extend a 10-month moratorium on new construction in the West Bank.

The Palestinians refused to return to the negotiating table if construction resumed on land they want for a future state and gave the U.S. until later this month to come up with a formula to salvage the talks.

The diplomatic climate soured even further last week after Israel pressed ahead with plans to build 1,300 apartments in east Jerusalem.

Last week, Netanyahu met with U.S. officials in an effort to break the impasse and held a seven-hour meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He returned with a U.S. proposal to renew the moratorium in exchange for a White House pledge to ask Congress to sell Israel 20 stealth fighter jets for $3 billion, cabinet minister Yuli Edelstein told The Associated Press.

Washington also pledged to use its veto to quash attempts to hurt Israel at the United Nations over the coming year and to reach a strategic security agreement with Israel as part of a final peace deal, Edelstein said.

The Palestinians have said that if negotiations fail they will consider sidestepping Israel and seek UN recognition of a Palestinian state. Israel is also worried by efforts at the UN to force it to expose its secret nuclear program and to censure it for a deadly raid in May on a Turkish ship that tried to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Under the proposal, the U.S. would agree not to seek a further extension of the building moratorium after it expires. If a border agreement is reached within that time, the whole settlement construction issue ceases to be a problem. U.S. officials have repeatedly said they would like to resolve the border issue first.

The likelihood of achieving that goal is far from assured.

The Palestinians want to establish a state in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, all captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War. Israel has withdrawn from Gaza, but about half a million Israelis have settled in the other areas, and Netanyahu has made clear he wants to retain parts of the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

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