JERUSALEM, (AFP) – Israel’s government is deeply divided over a US proposal for a new ban on West Bank settlement building, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks likely to accept it, commentators said on Monday.
Details of the plan, which would involve a new 90-day moratorium in exchange for US political and security guarantees, were put to Netanyahu’s inner circle late on Saturday and to the cabinet on Sunday in a move praised by US President Barack Obama.
“I commend Prime Minister Netanyahu for taking, I think a very constructive step,” Obama told reporters in Washington. “It is not easy for him to do, but I think it is a signal that he is serious.”
Netanyahu said details of the proposal were still being hammered out, but he has promised to put the final draft to his 15-member security cabinet for approval.
Late on Sunday, a political source said Netanyahu had not agreed on the exact terms of the freeze and was “holding out” over a number of conditions.
“Only when these conditions are accepted will there be an understanding about the subject and the issue will be brought for the cabinet’s approval,” he said.
On Monday US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton underlined Obama’s support, saying Netanyahu was making a “serious effort” in considering the American proposal.
“We are in very close touch with both the Israelis and the Palestinians, working intensively to create the conditions for the resumption of the negotiations,” she told reporters in Washington.
Although Netanyahu faces an uphill battle to garner support for the plan, press reports suggested he was likely to get the proposal through the security cabinet with a wafer-thin majority of seven to six, with two abstentions.
The mainstream Israeli papers seemed to agree that Netanyahu can count on the support of three ministers from his Likud party, two Labour members including Defence Minister Ehud Barak, and an independent.
Leading the opposition is Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman with two others from his ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, and three Likud hardliners.
Two ministers from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party have agreed to abstain.
Washington’s aim is to bring Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas back to the negotiating table so the two parties can begin discussing borders, a Haaretz editorial said.
“At the heart of the American proposal is the demand to demarcate the borders of the Palestinian state that Netanyahu has promised to see established,” it said.
“Setting the border will bring order to the settlement issue and will make it clear where Israel is entitled to build and where it is not. From there, talks will move on to the other core issues.”
Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor, a security cabinet member who supports extending the freeze, told Haaretz it was “imperative” that Israel approve the US plan.
“Israel’s interests make it imperative to approve it,” he said. “The freeze is not the main thing, rather the negotiations which are an Israeli interest of the top order.
“Israel has an interest in creating a border, with Israel on the one side and the Palestinian state on the other.”
Until now, Netanyahu has avoided all talk of borders, an issue of great concern for hardliners within his cabinet.
Netanyahu has reportedly rejected a US demand that the two parties try to reach understandings on borders within the 90-day period, Yedioth said.
Barak told Israel’s army radio from Paris that US officials had asked Israel to discuss borders, but that there was no fixed timetable.
“The Americans expect us, and rightfully so, to seriously discuss all the core issues as soon as we begin,” he said.
“They are unable, and do not intend to dictate to us that by the sixth day we have to resolve the issue of borders, and by the ninth day the issue of refugees.”
Peace talks, which began two months ago, shuddered to a halt over renewed settlement activity following the end of a 10-month building freeze, with the Palestinians refusing to return to the table without a new moratorium.
The Palestinians say they will only accept a “comprehensive” ban on all settlement construction, including in annexed east Jerusalem which they want for a future state.
“If Netanyahu stops the settlements, we will go back to direct negotiations,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP on Monday.
The proposed freeze would apply only to new construction in the West Bank.