settlements - Nir Kafri - October 22 2010
Construction in the settlement of Yakir after the freeze’s end in September 2010. Photo by Nir Kafri
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Vice Premier Moshe Ya'alon on Sunday lashed out at a new American proposal for a new three-month freeze on settlement construction on the West Bank, during a stormy meeting of ministers from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party.

"Extending the freeze is a honey trap," Ya'alon said, which "will lead us down a slippery slope and into another crisis with the American administration after three months, or perhaps even sooner."

The U.S. has offered to deliver 20 F-35 fighter jets to Israel, a deal worth $3 billion, asking in return for Israel to stop construction in the West Bank for 90 days, including on building work that began after the end of the first settlement moratorium on September 26. The U.S. will not ask Israel to extend the new freeze when it expires.

Netanyahu returned late last week from a five-day visit to the U.S., during which he met with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Americans have repeatedly called on Israel to extend the settlement freeze, which ended in September, and the Palestinians have conditioned a return to the negotiating table upon a settlement freeze. The prime minister told Clinton at their meeting in New York on Thursday that he was "serious" about talks with the Palestinians.

The New York Times on Sunday quoted an unnamed official as saying that Netanyahu has agreed to press the cabinet to approve the 90-day settlement freeze, in a bid to end the deadlock with the Palestinians over peace talks.

Sources said that no fewer than four Likud cabinet members expressed their vehement opposition Sunday to the new deal. Among them vice premiers Moshe Ya'alon and Silvan Shalom.

At a weekly cabinet meeting which took place shortly afterwards, Netanyahu told the entire government that the American offer had not been completed, and would be presented to the security cabinet once finalized.

"I will insist that in any proposal Israel's security needs will be addressed, both in the immediate term and regarding the threats facing us in the coming decade," Netanyahu said in public remarks before the cabinet meeting.

"What is at stake," argued Shalom at the start of the cabinet meeting, "is not a three-month building freeze, but in fact the beginning of negotiations over the borders of a Palestinian state."

Shalom also criticized Netanyahu, noting, "It is a strategic error to condition an American veto [in the United Nations Security Council] and diplomatic support from Washington upon the continuation of a building freeze."

"It is something that should go without saying, based on the special relationship between our countries," he added.

"If we freeze [construction] for three months, the pressure on us to decide our permanent borders will be unbearable," Shalom told Israel Radio after the meeting. "Unfortunately, if that happens, it will be a huge mistake."

Despite the apparent widespread opposition to the deal, Shas chairman Eli Yishai told the cabinet that under certain circumstances, his party would not reject an extension of the settlement moratorium.

"If arrived a letter from the president of the United States stating that there could be immediate construction in Jerusalem, and that after 90 days there could be unlimited construction anywhere, we would think about abstaining," he said.

"I am sorry that this debate is about details not principles," said Edelstein. "The government has itself committed to end the freeze. The freeze was a mistake, and we must oppose its continuation. We must demand negotiations without preconditions. The strategic covenant between the United States and ourselves cannot be dependent on certain actions."

The Palestinians have also expressed strong reservations about the proposal because the moratorium would apply only to the West Bank, not East Jerusalem, the Palestinians' hoped-for capital. Still, they did not reject it outright, saying they would consult among themselves and with Arab leaders.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Americans had not officially informed the Palestinians about the details of the proposal, "but they know we have a major problem in not including East Jerusalem."

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