U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday praised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to extend a freeze on West Bank settlements in return for diplomatic and defense incentives.
"This is a very promising development and a serious effort by Prime Minister Netanyahu," Clinton said, declining comment on the details of his plan but stressing that the United States was in close contact with Israeli and Palestinian officials.
"We are going to continue to do everything we possibly can to get the parties to begin the kind of serious, end-game negotiations that are necessary" to end the conflict, she added.
The plan, proposed by the American administration, calls for a 90-day extension of the moratorium on building West Bank settlements in return for a series of incentives including the sale of 20 new fighter jets to Israel. The previous ten-month settlement construction ban expired in September.
Netanyahu's majority in the cabinet coming into a vote on the proposed freeze will be a razor-thin one, officials estimated this week, made possible only by Shas ministers' agreement to either abstain or absent themselves from the vote.
Shas chairman Eli Yishai said on Sunday that his party would take this step "if it is made clear in a letter from the president of the United States that construction will take place in Jerusalem immediately, and that after 90 days, it will be possible to build everywhere, without restrictions."
Clinton's Monday remarks echoed similar statements by U.S. President Barack Obama made just a day earlier, and in which the American president said he commended "Prime Minister Netanyahu for taking, I think, a very constructive step."
"It's not easy for him to do but I think it's a signal that he is serious," Obama said.
The Palestinians halted peace talks after the 10-month Israeli moratorium on settlement construction expired in September.
Also on Monday, a diplomat familiar with the details said Israel would be allowed to finish hundreds of apartments already under construction in West Bank settlements even if it agrees to the U.S.-drafted deal.
"From our understanding, what was allowed under the previous freeze can continue. What was not allowed under the previous freeze cannot continue," the diplomat said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the details of the deal have not been finalized.
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