In Victory for PM, Key Committee Keeps Cabinet in Charge of Freeze Policy

On the eve of the prime minister's departure tonight for Washington to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted down a bill to transfer the authority to freeze construction in the settlements from the cabinet to the Knesset.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had worked yesterday morning to persuade Likud ministers on the committee to oppose the bill.

The bill was proposed by MKs Carmel Shama (Likud ) and Uri Ariel (National Union ). Shama denied that the bill was designed to prevent Netanyahu from making progress on the peace process. Rather, he said the law "was intended to tie the hands of the president of the United States, Barack Obama, and the international community, so they can't exert unreasonable pressure against Israel's interests."

Apparently to avoid embarrassing Netanyahu in Washington, the Jerusalem municipality's planning and building committee took off the agenda yesterday discussions on a plan to build 60 housing units in the neighborhood Pisgat Ze'ev over the Green Line.

Netanyahu reportedly wants to devote a good deal of his time with Obama tomorrow to American guarantees of strategic understandings with Israel on the nuclear issue. Sources in Jerusalem say the subject is close to being resolved.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Another main subject expected to be discussed is the peace process with Palestinians and the lifting of the Gaza blockade. A senior Israeli official said the list of items prohibited from entering Gaza has been completed. Virtually all items will be let in except materials to make weapons.

The list was completed over the past few days during talks between the Prime Minister's Bureau, the Defense Ministry and the coordinator of government activities in the territories. "The Americans saw the list and were very pleased," a senior Israeli official said.

The list will apparently be released for publication today by the coordinator of government activities in the territories, to show progress toward lifting the blockade ahead of the Netanyahu-Obama meeting.

Netanyahu's advisers, attorney Isaac Molho and National Security Adviser Uzi Arad, returned yesterday from a lightning visit to Cairo, where they showed the list to Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak is to meet today with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to discuss the situation in the West Bank and security coordination with the Palestinian Authority.

Netanyahu's previous visit to Washington, which was canceled due to the Gaza-flotilla affair around the beginning of June, was also to have focused on the Israeli nuclear issue. A few days before the scheduled visit, the Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty called on Israel to sign the treaty and open its nuclear reactors in Dimona and Nahal Soreq to international inspection.

The decision also calls for a meeting of the international committee on a nuclear weapons-free Middle East. The decision has been a serious diplomatic failure for Israel, especially in light of Jerusalem's expectation that the United States would not allow the conference to pass an anti-Israeli decision.

The decision gave Israel the feeling that the United States has turned its back on Israel to promote its interests vis-a-vis the Arab countries. But a senior Israeli official said Obama had conveyed a message to Israel that the review conference's decision would not harm key Israeli interests and that the United States was obligated to help strengthen Israel's strategic capabilities.

Although Israel has ostensibly already obtained American guarantees on the nuclear issue, top-level talks have taken place between Israel and the United States on the matter. According to a senior Israeli official, the issue "is near a solution."