Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will convene his forum of top ministers today to discuss extending Israel's moratorium on West Bank settlement construction for another 60 days.
The concession would be in exchange for a series of U.S. guarantees regarding Israel's negotiations with the Palestinians.
Israel initially halted construction for 10 months only, which ended on September 26. But the Palestinians have said they would not continue the recently resumed negotiations unless Israel agreed to halt construction again. The Obama administration has urged Israel to reconsider its rejection of this demand.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has also entered the fray: In an interview with the journal of the Egyptian armed forces, given to mark the anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he said he has told several leaders, including Netanyahu, that "if the peace process collapses, violence and terrorism will erupt in the Middle East and all over the world."
Yesterday, Netanyahu announced that he was canceling a planned tour of the Jerusalem area in order to hold today's session. If he succeeds in convincing his seven top ministers to extend the freeze, he will bring the matter to a vote in the diplomatic-security cabinet later today.
Netanyahu will try to persuade the ministers to accept the guarantees the American administration has offered Israel in exchange for extending the construction freeze.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Labor ) and Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Dan Meridor (Likud ) are expected to support Netanyahu's position, while Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu ) is likely to present the strongest opposition.
Netanyahu is pinning his hopes on Ministers Benny Begin (Likud ), Moshe Ya'alon (Likud ) and Eli Yishai (Shas ). He has met Begin over the last few days in an attempt to convince him to change his mind about extending the freeze.
The prime minister is interested in passing a decision on the matter before an Arab League committee meets in Libya on Friday to deliver its verdict on whether peace negotiations should continue.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Netanyahu earlier this week in an effort to resolve the settlement construction deadlock. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley defined the conversation as "very constructive" but refused to go into details.
Earlier yesterday, the London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat quoted Israeli officials as saying that Netanyahu had agreed to extend the freeze on settlement construction by two months on condition that no further extension be demanded. It said he also insisted that Washington permit continued construction on West Bank projects that began after the freeze expired on September 26.
Speaking to Likud ministers yesterday morning, Netanyahu, in what may have been a reference to the Asharq al-Awsat report, said the time was not yet ripe "for issuing statements."
"There are a lot of reports, most of which are incorrect," he said. "We can't deny or correct everything."
Later, he told a cabinet meeting that he had "an interest in acting wisely and responsibly in order to advance the diplomatic process." He said Israel and the United States were holding behind-the-scenes talks aimed at resolving the deadlock in talks with the Palestinians, and that peace was a vital Israeli interest.
Also yesterday, Minister Michael Eitan (Likud ) urged Netanyahu to oust Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party from the coalition over the foreign minister's speech against the peace process in the UN last week.
Eitan, who blasted Lieberman for undermining the prime minister's leadership, said his party should be replaced with Kadima.
"We must look into expanding the coalition and adding new partners," he said.
Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai (Labor ) said Lieberman "makes mincemeat" of the government wherever he goes.
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