WASHINGTON, (AFP) – US President Barack Obama praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for considering a new settlement freeze and voiced hope of a deal to get Middle East peace talks back on track.
Under the proposals Israel would receive political and military benefits from the United States in exchange for a one-off, 90-day moratorium on new Jewish construction in the West Bank.
Even if the Israelis agree, the resumption of direct talks is not assured as the Palestinians have insisted they will only accept a “comprehensive” ban on all Jewish settlement construction, including annexed east Jerusalem.
The exact terms of the deal, introduced on Thursday by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at lengthy New York talks with the Israeli leader, are still being hammered out, but Netanyahu has promised to put it to his cabinet.
“I think it is promising and so we have been in contact with both the Israelis and Palestinians to make sure that we use this opportunity to start negotiating as quickly as possible on some of these final status issues that would render the settlement issue moot,” Obama said.
“But I commend prime minister Netanyahu for taking, I think a very constructive step,” Obama said, speaking to reporters on Air Force One as he arrived back in Washington after a 10-day trip to Asia.
“It is not easy for him to do, but I think it is a signal that he is serious. My hope is that he and (Palestinian) president (Mahmud) Abbas start negotiations immediately.”
The comments marked a stark turnaround from last Tuesday in Jakarta when Obama led global condemnation of Israel’s plans to build 1,300 settler homes in east Jerusalem and warned it risked wrecking the fragile peace process.
The proposed freeze would not cover construction in east Jerusalem but would include all building in the West Bank begun since September 26 when the previous 10-month moratorium expired, a source close to the negotiations said.
Under the deal, Washington would pledge not to seek another moratorium, provide another three billion dollars worth of F-35 stealth fighter jets, and block international efforts to force a political settlement on Israel.
“It is not yet final, it is still being formulated by our team and that of the Americans,” Netanyahu told reporters in Jerusalem. “If and when the proposal is completed, I shall bring it to the appropriate government forum, in this case, the security cabinet.”
And a senior Israeli official told AFP: “Israel has presented several conditions which have not been met, and it is only after they have been accepted that the prime minister will present this matter to the security cabinet for a decision.”
A senior Palestinian official told AFP that David Hale, assistant to US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, was due to arrive in the West Bank city of Ramallah late on Sunday and would brief Abbas on the proposals on Monday.
“The Palestinians are committed to the decision of the Arab monitoring committee for a comprehensive freeze for the resumption of negotiations,” Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP.
Meanwhile, settlement watchdog Peace Now published a report Sunday showing that in the seven weeks since the end of the moratorium, Jewish settlers had begun building work on 1,649 new homes.
Figures showed that since the freeze ended, new homes had been started in 63 settlements and, in more than two-thirds of cases, settlers had begun laying the foundations.
“It turns out that the settlement freeze was no more than a 10-month delay in the construction and the settlers managed to fill in the gap very fast,” Peace Now said.
“The government of Israel must renew the freeze in a way that will stop all settlement activity, including the projects that started in the last few weeks, until there is a final agreement between the Palestinians and Israel regarding the borders and the future of the settlements.”
The US offer is the latest in a series of steps aimed at persuading Israel to impose a new freeze in a bid to salvage the moribund negotiations.
The peace talks, which began two months ago in Washington, stalled over the renewed settlement building, with Abbas refusing to return to the table unless Israel committed itself to a new ban.
As Israel examined the US offer, the Yesha Council of settlers warned that renewing the ban was “a trap” that would lead Israel into “the political slaughterhouse.”
But Palestinians see the settlements as a major threat to the establishment of a viable state, and view the freezing of settlement activity as a crucial test of Israel’s intentions.