Cabinet Stalls on Settlement Freeze as Israel and U.S. Clash Over Terms

Disagreements rose from American desire to remain vague over whether it will seek another freeze three months from now.

Disagreements with the U.S. administration are delaying the inner cabinet from discussing and voting on a potential settlement freeze. The letter outlines U.S. guarantees to persuade Israel to agree to a three-month moratorium on settlement construction.

As of Tuesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's envoy for the peace process, Isaac Molho, was conducting marathon talks with senior advisers to U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the text of the letter, so that it could be brought before the inner cabinet on Wednesday.

Construction in the West Bank.
Nir Kafri

Most of the disagreement concerns the American desire to remain vague over whether it will seek another freeze in three months' time. The Americans would like the text to say that progress over the next three months would render another freeze unnecessary.

With regard to the guarantees, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said "we're prepared to do everything we can to create the conditions for both the Palestinians and the Israelis to return to direct negotiations."

Crowley added: "Our message to both is the same: Get back to direct negotiations, work through the core issues and get to a just, fair and equitable settlement and agreement within 12 months." As with the previous construction freeze, the Americans will not ask Israel to stop building in East Jerusalem, but will not say so publicly or in writing.

Another question at hand is whether the letter will state that the Americans will not seek to extend the freeze only if significant progress is made on the question of borders. Netanyahu has said borders would only be discussed with the other core issues.

The prime minister's office is reportedly concerned that the present delay will give the settlers more time to influence Shas ministers, eroding his already slim majority to approve the moratorium. At press time, both the Americans and the Israelis said the disagreements were just hours to days away from being bridged.

A senior Israeli official familiar with the details of the talks said the delay was because "the Palestinians claim that the understandings reached between Clinton and Netanyahu benefit Israel too greatly, while denying the Palestinians leverage and bargaining chips."

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday refused to sign the letter of the "Likud rebels" protesting the freeze, although he is known to strongly oppose it. He told the Yesha Council of settlements that as speaker of the Knesset his job was to manage the debate, not take sides.