Netanyahu to Shas: Don't Vote Against West Bank Settlement Freeze

Shas holds balance of power in cabinet vote over U.S. package of incentives; the party has said it will abstain from the proposal if East Jerusalem not included.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is putting pressure on members of his cabinet from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to back a new West Bank settlement freeze proposed by the United States in return for a series of incentives.

Netanyahu and his key aide Yitzhak Molho, met Monday evening with Shas Chairman Eli Yishai and Minister Ariel Attias, who represent the party in the cabinet.

Shas Minister Ariel Attias and Chairman Eli Yishai

Netanyahu showed the two Shas ministers the agreements he had reached with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York last week, and requested they not vote against the proposal.

With the cabinet split down the middle, Shas holds the balance of votes Netanyahu needs to approve the U.S. deal. While the prime minister is unlikely to win their support, Shas ministers have said they will abstain in the vote, provided the final agreement specifically excludes East Jerusalem from the freeze.

Should they oppose, the cabinet will not be able to secure the majority necessary to go forth with the agreement. If they abstain, however, the proposal is likely to pass.

Confusion over the potential deal continued Wednesday, with Netanyahu offering seemingly contradictory versions of talks between the allies

Netanyahu's bureau on Wednesday morning put out a statement denying that negotiations had brought up the prospect of extending the West Bank building moratorium to East Jerusalem.

"Discussions with the United States to formulate a memorandum of understanding did not tackle the issue of Jerusalem," the statement said.

But the government's latest position appears at odds with Netanyahu's comments on Saturday, when he told his seven-strong inner cabinet that he had assurances from Clinton that East Jerusalem would not be covered by a new freeze.

Israel's previous moratorium on West Bank construction did not include the eastern half of the city, annexed by Israel in 1980 but claimed by the Palestinians as their future capital. That freeze expired on September 26, throwing peace talks into jeopardy and prompting the U.S. to offer Israel incentives including 20 stealth warplanes in exchange for a new 90-day suspension.

Jerusalem officials said Wednesday that the ambiguity arose because although draft documents made no direct reference to Jerusalem, Netanyahu had promised ministers that any new freeze would be enforced on the same terms as the old one. This allowed Netanyahu to present a "rosy picture" of U.S. guarantees, one senior official said.

Meanwhile, the cabinet continued to delay a vote on the deal, demanding clarification of the U.S. position on East Jerusalem and whether Clinton will demand another freeze as soon as the 90 days are over.

And as the wrangling continued, simmering dissent within Netanyahu's Likud party turned into open revolt, with several of the party's leading MKs, including at least two ministers, reported to have signed a letter to the prime minister rejecting the freeze.