netanyahu - Tomer Appelbaum - Sept 12 2010
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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Israel and the United States are holding behind-the-scenes talks geared at resolving a recent deadlock in Mideast peace talks with the Palestinians, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday, adding that peace was Israel's vital interest.

Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said that Israel was "in the midst of sensitive diplomatic contacts with the U.S. 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," the premier said, advising fellow cabinet members to be "patient, act responsibly, calmly and - above all - quietly. This is exactly what we must do."

Netanyahu also reiterated his commitment to the recently relaunched round of direct peace talks, saying that Israel had fully "lived up to our commitment, a difficult commitment that we took upon ourselves"

"Now there is interest in continuing the peace negotiations," the premier added, saying peace was "a vital interest for the State of Israel."

Netanyahu's comments came as a report by the London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat quoted Israeli officials as saying earlier Monday that the PM had agreed to extend Israel's freeze on settlement construction by 60 days.

The Asharq al-Awsat report came amid recent claims that U.S. President Barack Obama had offered Netanyahu an incentive package in exchange for keeping settlement construction at bay, a move which could quell Palestinian concerns over settlement building and consequently bring them back to the negotiations table.

According to Israeli sources quoted in the report, Netanyahu expressed his preliminary approval to extend Israel's moratorium on settlement building, adding that he conditioned such a move on a list of U.S. assurances, which included a continued IDF presence in the Jordan valley and continued U.S. political and military support.

Sources quoted in the Asharq al-Awsat piece also said Netanyahu claimed that the assurances listed would aid him in the face of the widespread internal opposition expected to such a move.

Speaking at a meeting of Likud ministers which took place shortly before the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Monday, Netanyahu made a possible reference to the Asharq al-Awsat report, saying that the time was not ripe "for issuing statements."

"We have no interest in causing an uproar, Neither do I have the possibility of denying the baseless media report," Netanyahu said, adding that he had "an interest in responding calmly and responsibly in order to advance the diplomatic process."

Last week, the White House denied that Obama sent Netanyahu a letter proposing a set of U.S. guarantees to Israel in exchange for Israel extending a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank for another two months.

"No letter was sent to the Prime Minister. We are not going to comment on sensitive diplomatic matters,” said Benjamin Chang, the deputy spokesman for the White House National Security Council.

It is not clear, however, whether Obama could have made the offer via means other than a letter.

Obama's letter was said to include a long list of American favors in exchange for an extension of the settlement building freeze, which ended this week. Most of these favors are critical to Israel's strategic security needs that Netanyahu has been demanding for years.

Other commitments that Obama reportedly offered Netanyahu in the letter include an agreement not to ask for any more building freeze extensions, an agreement to veto any anti-Israel UN Security Council resolution in the next year, and an agreement that the future fate of the settlements be dealt with only as part of a final status agreement with the Palestinians.

Obama's letter was said to include additional commitments, including a series of guarantees to prevent the smuggling of weapons and missiles into a Palestinian state, a lengthy period of interim security arrangements in the Jordan Valley and a comprehensive regional defense pact for protection from Iran to follow the establishment of the Palestinian state.

The American president also reportedly vowed to upgrade Israel's security capabilities and increase the three billion dollar security aid package that Israel receives annually. The letter included commitments to advanced weapons and early warning systems, including satellites.