netanyahu -  Itzik Ben-Malki - November 19 2010
Prime Minister Netanyahu at a conference in Haifa, November 2010. Photo by Itzik Ben-Malki
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The United States will demand that Israel refrain from undertaking construction in East Jerusalem and from demolishing Palestinian homes there for the duration of a new 90-day West Bank building freeze if another construction moratorium is approved by the inner cabinet, a senior American official has told Haaretz.

The U.S. administration is not demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declare a formal construction freeze in East Jerusalem, but it expects a halt to Israeli construction in practice, and that Israel will not carry out any other provocative activity.

The U.S. official said that if a new settlement freeze takes effect, the American administration will continue to pressure Israel to keep things quiet in East Jerusalem during the 90-day period.

The official added that in April President Barack Obama conveyed a verbal message to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the U.S. expected both Israel and the Palestinians to refrain from acts that would undermine trust, including actions in East Jerusalem, and the Americans would respond to such provocations with steps of its own or "adjustments in policy" while negotiations were underway.

Over the past year the Obama administration has spelled out examples of steps that it viewed as undermining trust, including announcements of major building plans in East Jerusalem, eviction of Palestinian residents from their homes and demolition of Palestinian homes.

The administration said it made no distinction between Arab and Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. "This policy will continue if the negotiations resume under a 90-day moratorium," the U.S. official said, "and the Israelis know it ... So whatever Bibi is telling Shas to reassure them about U.S. policy on East Jerusalem is not true."

A source in the Prime Minister's Office responded to the U.S. official's remarks as follows: "There is no American commitment on the subject of Jerusalem, however Israel has made it clear that there will not be a freeze in Jerusalem and this is a unilateral Israeli position.

The subject of Jerusalem was not discussed at all in New York [at Netanyahu's meeting last week with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton]. Jerusalem is outside the discussions and construction in Jerusalem will take place continuously, as in the past."

Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak met Wednesday night with Shas chairman Eli Yishai and attempted to convince him not to oppose a resumption of the construction freeze. Yishai responded that he wished to know precisely what U.S. policy was on East Jerusalem, to ensure that the Americans would not be surprised by construction in East Jerusalem during the West Bank building moratorium. The Shas leader also demanded that Barak permit massive building in the major settlement blocs at the end of the freeze. The meeting ended without agreement and the inner cabinet was not convened yesterday to vote on the proposal.

Senior figures in the Shas party have said they are very concerned that they have yet to receive clarification from Netanyahu on the issue of construction in East Jerusalem. They point out that the matter is of critical importance to Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Yishai and Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias.

They said they had given Netanyahu substantial leeway despite their reservations, but would be forced to vote against the freeze in the inner cabinet unless there are assurances that the U.S. will not be surprised if construction in East Jerusalem continues. The Shas officials added that they proposed a variety of flexible formulas on the subject, but have not received a definitive response.

Netanyahu is devoting most of his schedule to contacts with the Obama administration on the letter of assurances, which must be finalized before an inner cabinet vote.

Burning the midnight oil

The prime minister has remained in his office late into the night with his adviser Isaac Molho, in discussions with senior U.S. officials. Wednesday night they were joined for the contacts with the U.S. by Barak and Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor.

A member of the inner cabinet has said that almost all the issues involving the letter of assurances have been wrapped up, but one unresolved issue is the delivery by the U.S. of 20 advanced F-35 fighter jets to Israel.

The Americans do not wish to commit in the letter that the jets would be provided at no cost. The U.S. would like the letter to state that the Americans would take additional steps to preserve the Israel Defense Force's qualitative advantage.