Jason Greenblatt, left, meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Jerusalem, March 13, 2017. Photo courtesy of Government Press Office.

Trump adviser Jason Greenblatt did not request settlement freeze, Prime Minister’s Office says


The Prime Minister’s Office has denied Israeli media reports that Jason Greenblatt, President Donald Trump’s adviser on international relations, asked for a settlement freeze during meetings in Israel.

“The reports concerning Mr. Greenblatt’s visit to Israel and any purported U.S. demands of Israel in talks regarding the settlements are false,” read a statement issued Thursday from the office, The Times of Israel reported.

The statement came in the wake of interviews with coalition lawmakers from the Likud and Jewish Home parties that such a freeze would cause a government crisis.

The Israeli daily Haaretz reported Wednesday, citing an Israeli source familiar with the talks, that during his visit last week, Greenblatt made it clear that the Trump administration wants Israel to place substantial restrictions on construction in the settlements.

According to the report, Greenblatt said that the U.S. would accept Israeli construction in Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem and construction in agreed-upon settlement blocs, but with an annual quota.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, and Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, arrived in Washington, D.C., at the beginning of the week to continue the discussions with Greenblatt.

Netanyahu told reporters on Wednesday before he left China that “significant progress” had been made in the talks in Washington but gave no further information.

Greenblatt during his visit also met with Palestinian officials and residents of a refugee camp.

dviser on international relations, asked for a settlement freeze during meetings in Israel.

“The reports concerning Mr. Greenblatt’s visit to Israel and any purported U.S. demands of Israel in talks regarding the settlements are false,” read a statement issued Thursday from the office, The Times of Israel reported.

The statement came in the wake of interviews with coalition lawmakers from the Likud and Jewish Home parties that such a freeze would cause a government crisis.

The Israeli daily Haaretz reported Wednesday, citing an Israeli source familiar with the talks, that during his visit last week, Greenblatt made it clear that the Trump administration wants Israel to place substantial restrictions on construction in the settlements.

According to the report, Greenblatt said that the U.S. would accept Israeli construction in Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem and construction in agreed-upon settlement blocs, but with an annual quota.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, and Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, arrived in Washington, D.C., at the beginning of the week to continue the discussions with Greenblatt.

Netanyahu told reporters on Wednesday before he left China that “significant progress” had been made in the talks in Washington but gave no further information.

Greenblatt during his visit also met with Palestinian officials and residents of a refugee camp.

Representative Walter Jones (R-NC). Photo via Walter Jones/Facebook.

Meet the Republican congressman who calls for a settlement freeze


In many ways, Representative Walter Jones (R-NC), is a staunch conservative. He blasted former President Barack Obama’s “burdensome” environmental regulations as “completely out of touch with the American people.” The North Carolina lawmaker vehemently opposed the outgoing administration’s rule mandating that states offer Title X funding for abortion providers including Planned Parenthood. However, his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are far outside the norm for a Republican member of Congress these days.

This post was originally published at JewishInsider.com.

In an interview with Jewish Insider, Jones called for a “moratorium” on Israeli West Bank settlement growth. Jones was one of four Republicans who voted with 76 Democrats against House Resolution 11 in January, a measure that criticized the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for condemning Israeli settlements at the end of the Obama Administration. While the overwhelming majority of Republican leaders including Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and President Donald Trump assailed the UN for engaging in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process, Walter offered a dramatically different response. “I think they (the UN) can be part of a process that could be helpful,” he explained. When discussing America’s role as a mediator, the 74-year-old North Carolina lawmaker noted, “America because of its friendship and relationship with Israel – and I have great respect for Israel – I think it’s going to take more than just one country to put this together.”

Jones was one of only two Republicans to sign onto a letter currently circulating from Representatives Gerry Connolly (D-VI) and David Price (D-NC), which “affirms” the two state solution. In doing so, Jones joined 113 Democrats who back the measure. Explaining his support, Jones noted, “If we just sit back, watch and complain, and nobody is making any effort to get the two sides together, I think it is wrong.” The veteran GOP Congressman cites his Christian faith in motivating his desire to search for peace. In contrast to most lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, Jones repeatedly used the term “Palestine” throughout the interview.

Some pro-Israel organizations have worked tirelessly to unseat Jones given his unorthodox viewpoint as a Republican on the Jewish state. Breitbart called an ad from the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) against Jones, which included anti-Israel protesters burning U.S. and Israeli flags while narrating Jones’ Congressional record, “brutal.” The ECI ad also warned that Jones was endorsed by the “anti-Israel group J Street.” In addition to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, Jones broke with his party in 2005 emphasizing that his vote in favor of the 2003 Iraq War was mistaken, years before candidate Trump made opposition to the war a mainstay of his presidential campaign.

Despite the numerous foreign policy challenges, Jones urged Trump to signal that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be “the number one issue” in order for America “to be a facilitator to find peace.” With Trump calling on Israel to “hold back on settlements,” and the President’s Special Assistant Jason Greenblatt meeting this week with Netanyahu, and visiting a West Bank Palestinian refugee camp, Jones may have reason to be more upbeat than usual.

Knesset members call for policy, diplomatic shifts in wake of Obama interview


Israeli lawmakers have called for policy and diplomatic changes following a warning by President Barack Obama that Israel could lose international backing unless it supports a two-state solution.

Michael Oren, a lawmaker with the center-right Kulanu party and Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, said a day after Obama’s remarks on Israeli television — that Israel should freeze settlement building outside settlement blocs near the West Bank border. He also called on Israel to more actively demonstrate its desire for peace.

“The ball is in our court,” Oren, whose party is part of Israel’s governing coalition, said at a meeting Wednesday of the Knesset Caucus for Israel-U.S. Relations. “We must show we favor peace even in the absence of a Palestinian partner. We must show that we’re at the table even when the opposite seat is empty, and that we’ll work actively toward a permanent agreement.”

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, chairman of the Zionist Union, told Israel’s Army Radio that a friendlier posture toward the United States would also help Israel combat Iran’s nuclear program.

“The Iranian issue is a major national challenge, but in order to fight it, to ensure Israel’s standing among the nations … we need to speak with the administration and conduct intimate dialogue. Not humiliate it,” Herzog said Wednesday, according to the Times of Israel.

Obama in an interview that aired Tuesday night said doubts regarding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s support for a Palestinian state could lead to the United States lessening its support for Israel in international forums.

“If in fact there’s no prospect of an actual peace process, if nobody believes there’s a peace process, then it becomes more difficult to argue with those who are concerned about settlement construction, those who are concerned about the current situation,” Obama said on the Channel 2 program “Uvda.” “It’s more difficult for me to say to them, ‘Be patient, wait, because we have a process here.'”

Kerry says Israeli settlements should not disrupt mideast talks


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday that Israel's announcement of new settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem “were to some degree expected,” and urged Israelis and Palestinians to move head with peace talks due to resume this week.

“What this underscores is the importance of getting to the table, getting to the table quickly” and resolving disputes over settlements and other issues, said Kerry. He added that he had spoken on Monday with Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni and had called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is recovering from surgery.

Israel's housing minister on Sunday approved plans for 1,200 new settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as part of their state.

“The United States of America views all of the settlements as illegitimate,” said Kerry, who was on a visit to Colombia.

Reporting by Warren Strobel; Editing by David Brunnstrom

Israel puts 91 Jewish settlements on priority spending list


The Israeli government put 91 Jewish settlements on a national priority funding list on Sunday, adding six to a roster of dozens of enclaves already eligible for supplemental state cash.

A senior Palestinian official condemned the decision as an obstacle to U.S.-brokered peace talks that resumed just a week ago after a three-year rupture over settlement building on land Palestinians seek for a state.

At its weekly meeting, the Israeli cabinet increased by six the number of settlements built on land Israel captured in a 1967 war on a “national priority” spending list, by adding nine while removing three others.

The “list of settlements with national priority” is a longstanding roster of nearly 700 border towns and settlements eligible for extra development funding above and beyond their normal budgets.

Most communities on the list are either on Israel's northern border with Lebanon or to the south, across from neighboring Egypt.

Ninety-one are settlements built in the West Bank, where Palestinians seek to establish an independent state. Those settlements are deemed illegal by the World Court and are opposed by most countries.

Three settlements were removed from a previous list from several years ago, while nine others were added, among them enclaves deep inside the West Bank, beyond the traditional blocs Israel insists it will keep under any peace deal.

“We condemn this step,” Nabil Abu Rdainah, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told Reuters, accusing Israel of seeking to “put obstacles in the way of U.S.-backed (peace) efforts.”

The Israeli settlement watch group Peace Now said that, by taking steps to expand West Bank settlements, Israel “calls into question whether this government is truly ready to negotiate in good faith.”

Abbas had long demanded a freeze in settlement construction as a condition to resuming peace talks, but Kerry won Palestinian agreement to resume negotiations after Israeldecided to release 104 prisoners, many convicted of lethal attacks and behind bars for more than 20 years.

Israeli media pundits interpreted the unpopular decision to free prisoners as a compromise with ultra-nationalists in Israel's cabinet opposed to curbing settlement construction.

Settler-champion cabinet minister Silvan Shalom said Abbas had rejected an Israeli offer to freeze construction in some settlements rather than free the prisoners, Israel Radio said.

Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Ori Lewis; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

Report: Netanyahu promised Kerry to put ‘hold’ on settlement construction


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that he would put a hold on construction in West Bank settlements until mid-June.

Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel was told to delay the publication of new government tenders for the construction of 3,000 apartments in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, Army Radio reported Tuesday.

Ariel, of the Jewish Home party, did not comment on the report during an interview Tuesday morning with Army Radio.

The daily Haaretz also reported Tuesday that Netanyahu agreed to “rein in” settlement construction.

Ariel said last week that his party would not vote for the 2013 budget, a move that could bring down the government, unless settlement construction projects were funded. He said not funding the projects was a violation of the coalition agreement.

Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month freeze on construction in the settlements in November 2009. The Palestinians returned to peace negotiations one month before the end of the freeze, then refused to continue negotiating when Netanyahu would not extend the freeze.

News of what is being called a “restraint” policy on settlement construction comes after an announcement by the Arab League, following a meeting with Kerry, that it would agree to a peace agreement along the 1967 borders with agreed-upon land swaps.

Netanyahu says he would put peace deal to referendum


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday he would put any peace deal with the Palestinians to a referendum, raising expectations that direct negotiations might soon resume following a two-year stalemate.

It was the second time in just three days that Netanyahu has publicly mentioned the possibility of holding a nationwide vote on an eventual accord and came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Israeli politicians in Washington to discuss talks.

“If we get to a peace agreement with the Palestinians, I'd like to bring it to a referendum, and I'd like to talk to you about your experiences with that,” Netanyahu said as he met Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter.

Switzerland regularly holds referendum on a broad range of issues. Israel, by contrast, has never held a referendum in its 65-year history, and previous peace treaties with Arab neighbors Egypt and Jordan were approved by parliament.

Netanyahu leads a center-right coalition that includes supporters of the settlement movement, many of whom are fiercely opposed to the idea of allowing the Palestinians an independent state on land seized by Israel in the 1967 war.

By pledging to put any deal to a referendum, Netanyahu could be hoping to avert any immediate far-right backlash to a decision to talk land-for-peace with the Palestinians, promising that the Israeli people would have the final word.

“There is a very serious effort under way to get talks to resume,” said a senior Israeli official who declined to be named. “People are devoting a lot of time and effort to this. It is possible and it is doable.”

OBSTACLES

U.S. President Barack Obama came to Jerusalem in March and his secretary of state has visited the region three times in little over six weeks. Kerry was due to see Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni later on Thursday in Washington.

Livni has been designated by Netanyahu to be his chief peace negotiator. She was traveling with one of the prime minister's top officials and confidants, Yitzhak Molcho.

Direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in 2010 over the issue of continued Jewish settlement building on 1967 land. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says he will not return to the table until there is a construction freeze. Israel says there should be no pre-conditions.

Unexpectedly highlighting the issue of referendum has fueled hopes that the impasse might soon be overcome. However, there was little sign that the core questions dividing the two sides, including the status of Jerusalem, were any nearer resolution.

“No one thinks we are near a historic agreement. But any historic agreement will need national legitimacy,” the Israeli official said.

The Palestinians have also said that they would hold a referendum on an eventual accord, with no guarantees that their diverse electorate, including the far-flung refugee population, would accept the likely compromises needed to seal a deal.

Israel passed a law in 2010 for a referendum to approve any handover of East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights, territory captured in the 1967 war and which it has annexed.

Moves are under way in parliament to expand that law to include the West Bank, which has not been annexed.

Editing by Crispian Balmer

Murder of Jewish settler sparks West Bank clashes


Israeli settlers and Palestinians clashed in the West Bank more than a day after the murder of a Jewish man by a Palestinian attacker.

Jewish settlers threw rocks at passing Palestinian cars, and settlers and Palestinians threw rocks at each other in the northern West Bank on Wednesday, according to reports.

Late Tuesday night, the words “Price Tag” were sprayed on a house in a Palestinian village near Ramallah, and five cars there were damaged by rock throwing, The Jerusalem Post reported.

“Price tag” refers to the strategy that extremist settlers and their supporters have adopted to exact retribution for settlement freezes and demolitions or Palestinian attacks on Jews.

Eviatar Borovsky, 31, a father of five from the Yitzhar settlement, was killed Tuesday morning as he waited for a bus at the Tapuach Junction. The stabber then took Borovsky's gun and began shooting at Border Guard officers. The officers returned fire, injuring the Palestinian, who was taken to an Israeli hospital to be treated for his wounds.

Following the attack, a group of Yitzhar residents set fields afire and threw stones at a Palestinian school bus, Haaretz reported.

Since the murder, at least 15 Jewish settlers have been arrested for violence against Palestinians.

Several hundred people attended Borovsky's funeral. Later, a photo of one of his young sons hugging his lifeless body draped in a prayer shawl went viral on Facebook.

In January, a 17-year-old Israeli was stabbed at the same junction.

In Ramallah, Obama implies settlement freeze not needed


President Obama implied during a news conference in Ramallah that a settlement freeze should not be a precondition for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

He made the statement Thursday, following a long meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah,

“If the only way to begin the conversation is that we get everything right at the outset, then we’re never going to get to the broader issue, which is how do we structure a state of Palestine and how do you provide Israel confidence about its security,” Obama said. “That’s not to say settlements are not important.”

Early in his first term, in 2009, Obama called on Israel to freeze all settlement building in the West Bank, which Israel partially acquiesced to after initially resisting. Since that 10-month freeze expired, during which little diplomatic activity took place, Abbas has demanded another freeze in order to resume talks.

At Thursday’s news conference, on the second day of Obama’s visit to Israel and the West Bank, Abbas did not explicitly call for a settlement freeze as a precondition for negotiations, though he didn’t drop the call, either.

“We are asking nothing outside the framework of international agreements,” Abbas said. “It is the duty of Israel to at least halt the activity. Each side will know its territory” after peace talks are concluded.

Obama and Abbas both called for a two-state solution. Obama stressed that an agreement must come out of direct negotiations rather than other forums, an implicit criticism of Abbas’ request last year that the United Nations recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state.

“We seek an independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state as the homeland of the Palestinian people,” Obama said. “The only way to achieve that goal is through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians themselves.”

Obama also harshly criticized Hamas, the terrorist organization that governs the Gaza Strip. In the hours before Obama traveled to Ramallah, several rockets fired from Gaza landed near the Israeli city of Sderot.

Obama said at the news conference that “we condemn this violation of the important ceasefire.” He said Hamas is “more interested in tearing Israel down than in building Palestine up.”

Earlier Thursday, Obama visited the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and viewed the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as some recent Israeli hi-tech innovations. Later in the afternoon in Jerusalem he will address a crowd of Israelis, including many students. After he leaves Israel on Friday he is scheduled to visit Jordan.

Palestinians unmoved as Israel presents border ideas


Israel has presented Palestinians with its ideas for the borders and security arrangements of a future Palestinian state, in a bid to keep exploratory talks alive, Palestinian and Israeli sources said on Friday.

However, Palestinian officials said the verbal presentation by Israeli negotiator Yitzhak Molcho at a meeting on Wednesday was a non-starter, envisaging a fenced-off territory of cantons that would preserve most Jewish settlements.

“He killed the two-state solution, set aside previous agreements and international law,” said a Palestinian Liberation Organisation source. “Basically, the Israeli idea of a Palestinian state is made up of a wall and settlements.”

It was the first time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration has broached the issue of borders with Palestinians. An Israeli official said the presentation was in line with a framework for talks set by the Quartet—the United States, European union, Russia and the United Nations.

Its aim is to ensure that the core issues of borders and security were clearly set out by January 26, with the goal of relaunching negotiations stalled since November 2010, to reach a framework peace accord by the end of this year.

After five rounds of talks in Jordan, including Wednesday’s session, the Palestinian source said there are no more meetings scheduled. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he wants to consult Arab League states on the next move.

According to the Palestinian source, Molcho’s team suggested that any solution creating a Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel needs to “preserve the social and economic fabric of all communities, Jewish or Palestinian.”

The idea presented by Molcho “does not include Jerusalem and the Jordan valley, and includes almost all (Jewish) settlements,” the Palestinian official said.

No maps were presented at the meeting, he added.

The Palestinians want a state including the West Bank, the Jordan Valley, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

The Gaza Strip is ruled by the Islamist Hamas faction which rejects a permanent peace settlement with Israel and refuses to recognize it. Politically and geographically, Gaza is split off from Abbas’s West Bank territory.

An Israeli official said Molcho presented guiding principles that determine Israel’s positions on the territorial issue.

Israel’s approach to territorial compromise in the occupied West Bank includes the principal that “most Israelis will be under Israeli sovereignty and obviously most Palestinians will be under Palestinian sovereignty,” the official said.

He noted that Netanyahu had acknowledged, in a speech to the United States Congress, that not all Jewish settlements “will be on our side of the border” of a future Palestinian state.

“We think it is very important that these talks continue. They are only at a preliminary stage, but they contain potential and obviously in less than a month it would have been illogical to talk about a breakthrough,” he said.

“But in many ways the talks are progressing better than expected and it would indeed be a pity to bring about a premature ending of this process.”

Palestinians dispute this. “The Israelis brought nothing new in these meetings,” said one official familiar with the talks.

Peace negotiations foundered in late 2010 over a Palestinian demand that Israel suspend settlement building in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Reporting by Jihan Abdalla and Dan Williams. Writing by Douglas Hamilton; editing by Crispian Balmer

Panetta urges Israel, Palestinians to negotiate


Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Monday called for “bold action” from Israeli and Palestinian leaders to achieve peace after cautioning that Israel was becoming increasingly isolated in the Middle East.

Panetta, making his first trip to Israel since becoming Pentagon chief, met Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the start of his visit which includes separate talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I want to emphasize that there is a need, and an opportunity, for bold action on both sides to move toward a negotiated two-state solution. There is no alternative to negotiations,” Panetta said at a news conference with Barak.

U.S.-brokered peace talks collapsed a year ago after Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month limited moratorium on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Abbas has conditioned a return to negotiations on a settlement freeze and applied last month for full Palestinian membership of the United Nations, a move opposed by the United States and Israel which have urged him to resume talks.

Speaking to reporters on his flight to Israel, Panetta said he would reaffirm U.S. security commitments to Israel and try to help it improve its increasingly chilly relations with Turkey and Egypt.

“It’s pretty clear, at this dramatic time in the Middle East when there have been so many changes, that it is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated. And that is what has happened,” Panetta said on the plane.

Speaking at the news conference with Panetta, Barak said: “It is clear that in the world as a whole there are many who would like to see Israel cornered into a sort of isolation and it is clear to us that we have a responsibility to try to moderate, to ease tensions.”

Panetta’s visit to the Middle East, which includes meetings with Egyptian leaders, comes at a time when Arab popular demand for political change has shaken the region, raising hopes, tensions and uncertainty.

Protests toppled governments in Tunisia and longtime U.S. ally Egypt earlier this year and touched off a civil war in Libya that led to the ouster of leader Muammar Gaddafi.

But the changes have sometimes been unsettling.

Egyptian protesters invaded the Israeli Embassy in Cairo a month ago in anger over a clash that killed five border guards. The military government’s handling of that incident and comments afterward raised concerns about Cairo’s future commitment to its long-standing peace deal with Israel.

“The timing (of Panetta’s visit) couldn’t be more apt given the events unfolding in the region and broad range of important issues on the agenda with the Israelis and the Egyptians,” a senior U.S. defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

On the flight to Israel, Panetta said he would make clear to Israel that the United States would protect its “qualitative military edge.”

“As they take risks for peace, we will be able to provide the security that they will need in order to ensure that they can have the room hopefully to negotiate,” he said.

Iran and its nuclear program also will be on Panetta’s agenda. He said with much of the world opposed to Iran developing its nuclear capabilities, it would be best to work together to try to curb Tehran’s ambitions rather than take unilateral action.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Roger Atwood

Moral dimension of Palestinian statehood


I felt terribly guilty when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the U.N. General Assembly: “Enough! It is time for the Palestinian people to gain their freedom and independence.” How can we deny to others what we claim for ourselves?

Let there be no misunderstanding; I am a daily listener to what Abbas’ television is telling his children about the fate of Israel. I, therefore, know what everyone else knows, that when Abbas speaks of “freedom and independence,” he is not talking about a two-state solution; he means freedom to demand the return of Tel Aviv to Palestinian hands and independence to pursue that demand from a position of power and legitimacy. Still, the words “freedom and independence,” evoked the age-old question of equity and justice: “Can we deny to others what we demand for ourselves?”

I was not the only one to have this reaction to the Palestinian bid for statehood. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that more than 40 percent of Americans favor the United States recognizing Palestine as a state. True, only 10 percent of the respondents said that they are following the news closely on this issue, but this is exactly what we mean by the “moral dimension” — the level of consciousness that has no patience for sorting out facts, figures, intentions and consequences, but instead draws meaning from the force of certain words and their deep roots at the heart of human experience.

At that level, we must admit, Israel’s campaign has been a failure. Say what you will about Israel’s need for security, or the wisdom of entering direct negotiations before seeking statehood, it simply does not sound “right” to deny a people the right of self-determination. David Ben-Gurion expressed it quite clearly in 1931, at a time when he saw the Arabs as partners for coexistence:

“There is in the world a principle called ‘the right for self-determination.’ We have always and everywhere been its champions. … We ought not to diminish the Arabs’ right for self-determination for fear that it would present difficulties to our own mission” (Ben-Gurion, “Anachnu U’Shcheneinu,” Tel Aviv, 1931, p. 257).

The public debate preceding the U.N. session revealed a glaring asymmetry between the two sides. The Palestinian side spoke of human rights, historical justice, personal dignity and moral obligation, while the Israeli side, including its U.S. supporters, debated and agonized over pragmatic considerations: Will statehood truly advance the peace process? Will it change things on the ground? Will it lead to renewed negotiations? Will Hamas overrun or shun the new state, if created? Will the United States use its veto power? What will Abbas’ next move be?

This placed the Israeli side at a severe disadvantage. Impartial observers, even if convinced that the Palestinian bid is aimed to intensify, not resolve, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, preferred to keep silent and let the parties fight it out in the United Nations. No one wishes to appear insensitive to moral arguments or be on the wrong side of justice.

For some obscure reason, even the staunchest advocates of the Israeli position were not prepared to address the moral dimension head on and to frame their arguments in a context of universally compelling principles of ethics and justice.

The only one who did so was President Barack Obama in his speech at the General Assembly on Sept. 21.

The president said: “The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors.”

Note how the president speaks in the pre-1948 language of “deservedness” and “historical homeland-ness,” not in the post-1967 language of security needs, borders, settlements and other expediencies. In effect, what the president was doing amounts to a bold repudiation of Palestinian claims for sole ownership of justice and morality.

Here is my translation of Obama’s speech into the discourse over Palestinian statehood:

Obama: “A successful state in their historic homeland.” Translation: No society, no matter how oppressed, is entitled to what it denies to others. In particular, the Arab denial of a people’s homeland for 63 years is morally unacceptable.

Obama: “Israel deserves recognition.” Translation: Never in the history of nations has a society defined itself on the ruins of its neighbor, and never has such society sought recognition while admitting its intent.

Obama: “It [Israel] deserves normal relations with its neighbors.” Translation: Never in the history of human conflict did anyone ask for statehood while teaching its children of the inevitable demise of its neighbor and making no investment in education for peace.

In short, Obama is telling Abbas in no uncertain terms: “You simply do not deserve a state without first doing some elementary homework.”

It is not surprising that Obama’s speech angered Palestinians and their supporters; they are not accustomed to being challenged in the moral dimension, certainly not in public. “The humiliation of Barack Obama” Robert Grenier called the moment, in Al Jazeera (English). “No U.S. embassy will be safe,” warned a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman in Cairo.

It is also not surprising that Obama angered Jewish radicals on the left. Fringe organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace will not forgive him for defining so clearly the immoral character of their anti-Israel activities.

What is surprising to me is that mainstream Jewish organizations did not seize on Obama’s speech as the moral manifesto of their objection to Palestinian statehood. Instead, we are hearing the all-too-expected praises of the speech, mixed with arguments on its impact on renewed negotiations, and questioning Obama’s political motivations.

It is all too easy to dismiss Obama’s words as part of an election campaign. But, as often happens in our history, it is not what the world means to say that counts, but what one makes of it. The Balfour Declaration, too, could have been dismissed as a campaign speech, or worse; instead, it was taken seriously by world Jewry and ushered Israel into being.

Let us not forget, most of those who question U.S. support of Israel see Obama as a beacon of moral courage for the 21st century. Excerpts from Obama’s speech should therefore be quoted and requoted by Israel advocates on television and radio shows. Copies of Obama’s words should decorate students’ walks on U.S. campuses, including the offices of my academic colleagues at UCLA. In short, Obama’s words should become Israel’s trust deed of moral justice in the court of world’s opinion.

I will end with an answer I gave to a friend who asked what I thought about the moral justification for a Palestinian state. “In the supreme court of world justice,” I answered, “the Palestinians will earn their right to statehood as soon as they can join Israelis in chanting: Two states for two peoples, equally legitimate and equally indigenous.”

Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (danielpearl.org), named after his son. He is a co-editor of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Netanyahu rejects widespread criticism of homes plan


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday rejected Western and Arab complaints that the planned construction of 1,100 new homes in Gilo on annexed land close to Jerusalem would complicate Middle East peace efforts.

“Gilo is not a settlement nor an outpost. It is a neighborhood in the very heart of Jerusalem about five minutes from the center of town,” Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev said.

In every peace plan on the table in the past 18 years Gilo “stays part of Jerusalem and therefore this planning decision in no way contradicts” the current Israel government’s desire for peace based on two states for the two peoples, he added.

Netanyahu also stressed the construction approval announced on Tuesday was a “preliminary planning decision.”

The United States, Europe and Arab states said the announcement would complicate efforts to renew peace talks and defuse a crisis over a Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations.

Britain and the European Union called on Netanyahu to reverse the decision, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said new settlement building would be “counter-productive.”

The U.S. State Department’s number two and three officials for policy, Deputy Secretary Bill Burns and Under Secretary Wendy Sherman, discussed the issue with Israeli Ambassador to Washington Michael Oren on Tuesday, the State Department said.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters both meetings were in person but had been previously scheduled, so Oren was not “summoned” to the State Department—a sign of diplomatic annoyance.

Nuland declined to say whether the United States had been given any advance warning of the construction decision.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas applied at the United Nations on Friday for full Palestinian membership, a move opposed by Israel and the United States, which urged him to resume negotiations with Israel to end the 63-year-old conflict.

Abbas has made a cessation of Israeli settlement building a condition for returning to talks which collapsed a year ago after Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial moratorium on construction.

The so-called Quartet of international mediators—the United States, the European Union, Russia and the U.N.—has called for talks to begin within a month and urged both sides not to take unilateral actions that could block peacemaking.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the new housing units Israel wants to build represented “1,100 ‘noes’ to the Quartet statement” urging a resumption of negotiations.

Palestinians want to create a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Israel’s Interior Ministry said a district planning committee approved the Gilo project and public objections to the proposal could be lodged within a 60-day review period, after which construction could begin.

Reporting by Douglas Hamilton; Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Matthew Jones and Jackie Frank

US against settlement halt as precondition for talks


The U.S. ambassador to Israel reaffirmed on Tuesday Washington’s opposition to a Palestinian call to halt Israeli settlement building before peace negotiations can resume.

Facing renewed urging from international mediators to return to negotiations and defuse a row over his bid for a full seat at the United Nations, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has repeated his demand for a settlement freeze first.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated on Tuesday that he was not about to offer one.

U.S. envoy Dan Shapiro said Washington had never favoured making a freeze a condition for negotiations: “We’ve never set that, in this administration or any other, as a precondition for talks,” he told Israeli Army Radio, in response to a question on whether he favoured the Palestinian demand.

Separately, Netanyahu signalled that another moratorium on construction in settlements in the West Bank, following a 10-month partial cessation that ended last September, was not on the cards.

“We already gave at the office,” Netanyahu said in an interview in The Jerusalem Post, a phrase meaning that he believed he had done enough last year.

Shapiro noted that the United States has long opposed Israeli settlement in the West Bank, territory captured in a 1967 war and where, along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, Palestinians want to establish a state of their own.

But he added: “What we have said consistently is that we believe direct talks are the only way to resolve this conflict, and (it) can only be resolved by the parties themselves in those talks, and they should be entered without preconditions.”

In New York on Monday, a divided U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors for its first discussion of last week’s Palestinian application for full U.N. membership as a state—a move seen as certain to fail due to Israeli and U.S. opposition, despite substantial support among other world governments.

Abbas repeated, on his return home from the United Nations on Sunday, his refusal to resume talks with Israel without a settlement freeze.

International mediators, trying to salvage the Middle East peace process, have urged preliminary negotiations be held within a month.

U.S.-brokered talks collapsed a year ago after Netanyahu refused to extend the partial construction freeze he had ordered under pressure from Washington to coax Abbas into talks.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

U.S., EU condemn Israeli plan to expand settlement


Israel approved on Tuesday the construction of 1,100 settlement homes on annexed land in the West Bank, complicating global efforts to renew peace talks and defuse a crisis over a Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations.

The plan was met with a chorus of Western criticism. Britain and the European Union called on Israel to reverse the decision, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said new settlement building would be “counter-productive” to the efforts to revive peace talks.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas applied at the U.N. on Friday for full Palestinian membership, a move opposed by Israel and the United States, which urged him to resume negotiations.

Abbas has made a cessation of Israeli settlement building a condition for returning to talks which collapsed a year ago after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial moratorium on construction.

The so-called Quartet of international mediators—the United States, the European Union, Russia and the U.N.—has called for talks to begin within a month and urged both sides not to take unilateral actions that could block peacemaking.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the new housing units Israel wants to build represented “1,100 ‘noes’ to the Quartet statement” urging a resumption of negotiations.

“Israel is challenging the will of the international community with the continued settlement policy,” Nabil Abu Rdainah, an Abbas spokesman, said.

The new homes are to be built in Gilo, an urban settlement in the West Bank.

Palestinians want to create a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and say settlements could deny them a viable country. Israel cites historical and Biblical links to the West Bank, which it calls Judea and Samaria.

Some 500,000 settlers live in the territory home to 2.5 million Palestinians.

Israel’s Interior Ministry said a district planning committee approved the Gilo project and public objections to the proposal could be lodged within a 60-day review period, after which construction could begin.

Despite the new crisis over settlements, Netanyahu held consultations on Tuesday with a forum of senior cabinet ministers about Quartet efforts to try and renew peace talks in the coming weeks, an Israeli political source said.

Palestinian leaders were expected to debate the Quartet’s plan on Wednesday.

In New York on Monday, a divided U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors for its first discussion of last week’s Palestinian application for full U.N. membership as a state.

The move seems certain to fail due to Israeli and U.S. opposition, despite substantial support by other governments.

Abu Rdainah said it was up to the Security Council to put a stop to Israel’s settlement policy “which is destroying the two-state solution and putting more obstacles in front of any effort to bring about a resumption of negotiations.”

In London, Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said settlement expansion was illegal and “corrodes trust and undermines the basic principle of land for peace. We call on the Government of Israel to revoke this decision.”

The European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she deplored the decision, adding: “I call on the Israeli authorities to reverse this plan.”

Richard Miron, spokesman for U.N. Middle East envoy Robert Serry, called Israel’s decision “very concerning.”

Clinton said the Israeli decision was “counter-productive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties.

“As you know, we have long urged both sides to avoid any kind of action which could undermine trust, including, and perhaps most particularly, in Jerusalem, any action that could be viewed as provocative by either side,” she told reporters at a news conference.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Ramallah and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Editing by Rosalind Russell

Abbas says no talks without Israeli settlement freeze


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas repeated on Sunday his refusal to talk with Israel without a settlement freeze after international mediators, responding to his United Nations bid for statehood, urged negotiations within a month.

“We have confirmed to all that we want to achieve our rights through peaceful means, through negotiations—but not just any negotiations,” Abbas told a cheering crowd of thousands on his return to the West Bank city of Ramallah.

“We will not accept (negotiations) until legitimacy is the foundation and they cease settlement completely,” he said, two days after presenting the application for Palestinian statehood and addressing the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

U.S.-brokered peace talks collapsed a year ago after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month limited moratorium on construction in settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinians say the settlements, built on land Israel captured in a 1967 war, would deny them a viable state. Israel cites historic and Biblical links to the West Bank, which it calls by its Hebrew names, Judea and Samaria.

Netanyahu, who has termed a settlement freeze an unacceptable precondition, gave no indication in his own speech at the U.N. of any change in his position. He urged Abbas to return to peace talks.

The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has said it will block the statehood move in the Security Council, which is expected to convene on Monday to discuss the application Abbas made after 20 years of failed Israeli-Palestinian talks.

NEW AGENDA

Neither Israel nor the Palestinians have responded formally to a plan from the so-called Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators—the United States, Russia, the European Union and the U.N.—for a return to direct negotiations.

The forum urged Israel and the Palestinians to meet within a month and set a new agenda for talks, with the aim of achieving a peace deal by the end of 2012 that would result in the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Netanyahu welcomed the Quartet’s call but reserved an official reply until he meets with senior cabinet ministers after his return on Monday from New York.

Abbas has said he would discuss the ideas with Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leaders and other senior Palestinian officials.

Hours before Abbas returned to the West Bank, Netanyahu’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said there would be “tough repercussions” if the U.N. approved the statehood application {nS1E78L2CV].

Lieberman, who heads a far-right party in Netanyahu’s governing coalition, did not spell out what action Israel might take. He said Israel had reservations about the Quartet’s proposal but was “ready to open immediate negotiations” with the Palestinians.

In the past, Lieberman has suggested severing ties with Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, if it wins recognition without a peace deal with Israel.

Israel is concerned that even if the United States vetoes a statehood resolution in the Security Council, the Palestinians could still win approval in the General Assembly for a more limited U.N. membership.

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Sophie Hares

Netanyahu: Israel was ready to extend freeze


Israel was prepared to extend a West Bank construction freeze, but the United States withdrew the idea, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

“The United States asked us to consider extending the freeze by three months, and the truth is that we were prepared to do so,” Netanyahu reportedly told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Monday.

“At the end of the day, the United States decided not to go in that direction, rightly so in my opinion, and moved on to outlining talks on closing gaps, so that the core issues can be discussed,” he added.

The Obama administration pressed Israel to implement a three-month extension of a 10-month freeze on construction on West Bank Jewish settlements in order to keep the Palestinians at the peace negotiating table. The freeze ended in late September, one month after the Palestinians agreed to restart negotiations. In early December the Obama administration announced that it would stop pressing for the freeze, after offering Israel several inducements, including 20 F-35 stealth fighter planes and security guarantees, as a reward for a freeze continuation.

“I told Obama that I am prepared to go with this to the Cabinet and that I will be able to enforce the move, but then I received the surprising phone call from the Americans who said they no longer demand that Israel extends the freeze,” Netanyahu reportedly said.

Netanyahu said that U.S. officials are scheduled to arrive in mid-January in an effort to restart peace negotiations.

On Sunday Netanyahu told his Cabinet that he was willing to hold continuous negotiations with Abbas until an agreement is reached.

Ehud Barak: Final status talks within months


After meeting with U.S. leaders, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak predicted that comprehensive talks with the Palestinians on all final status issues would begin within months.

“We will have a serious discussion in coming months on security, borders, Jerusalem and refugees,” Barak told reporters Monday, ending a visit in which he met with Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, among others.

Clinton, in an address Dec. 10 at the Saban Forum, urged the sides to address those core issues, just days after the United States abandoned its efforts to renew direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians walked out of the talks in October after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial settlement freeze.

Barak did not say how the talks would proceed, if not directly.

“The mechanics will be resolved in the coming weeks,” he said. Netanyahu has insisted on direct talks, and has preferred to focus only on borders and security for now.

Barak also dismissed the controversy subsequent to his remarks at the Saban Forum following Clinton’s address in which he said a final status plan would include a Jerusalem shared with the Palestinians.

Israeli officials within hours said that Barak’s position was not that of the government’s.

Speaking to reporters, Barak acknowledged as such, saying it was his personal view that Jerusalem is necessarily a topic to be considered in talks.

Livni says Israel should freeze settlement building


Israel should have instituted a second settlement building freeze in exchange for U.S. guarantees, Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni said on ABC News.

“In choosing between building more buildings or making peace, I prefer to make peace,” Livni said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week with Christiane Amanpour” in a joint interview with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. “I believe that a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians is in Israel’s interest. It’s not a favor to President Obama. Israel needs to make these kinds of decisions in order to live in peace.”

Livni, who heads the left-of-center Kadima Party, met privately with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton over the weekend and attended the Saban Forum in Washington.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not extend a 10-month moratorium on building in the settlements despite guarantees from the Obama administration.

The current state of the Middle East peace process was due to the makeup of Netanyahu’s right-wing government, said Livni, who indicated that she had offered to form a national unity government with his Likud Party.

Fayyad did not answer directly when asked if the Palestinian leadership would unilaterally declare a Palestinian state.

“What we are committed to is statehood. Not a declaration of statehood, we’re looking for a state,” he said. “We did make a declaration of statehood [in] 1988. This time we’re looking for a real state on the ground.”

Fayyad said he was waiting to hear from Netanyahu on what the Israeli leader means when he says he is committed to a Palestinian state.

U.S. quits effort on settlement freeze


The Obama administration reportedly has abandoned efforts to have Israel freeze its settlements.

“After consulting with the parties, we have determined that a moratorium extension will not at this time provide the best basis for resuming negotiations,” a number of media quoted a senior administration official as saying Tuesday.

The Palestinians left direct talks in late September, just weeks after they restarted, demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu extend a partial settlement freeze past its 10-month deadline.

The Obama administration prepared an offer of security incentives to entice Netanyahu into extending the freeze, said to amount to $3 billion in addition to the $3 billion Israel already receives annually from the United States.

Netanyahu balked at the package and sought amendments, including U.S. approval of building in eastern Jerusalem.

It was unclear whether the U.S. offer, including 20 additional state-of-the-art fighter jets, is still on the table. The official suggested that a return to direct talks was not imminent.

“We hope obviously to get the parties to direct talks, but in the meantime we will continue our engagement with both sides,” the official told Politico.

Netanyahu’s office: Clinton talks did not include E. Jerusalem


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s discussions with the Obama administration for a new freeze on settlement building did not include extending the freeze to eastern Jerusalem, his office said.

The Obama administration reportedly also is unwilling to commit to a promise not to seek another freeze after 90 days.

Netanyahu on Sunday told his Security Cabinet that he had been assured by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that eastern Jerusalem would not be part of a new moratorium on building in West Bank settlements. The Palestinians have said they will not return to peace negotiations unless all construction is halted, including Jerusalem.

The Israeli Cabinet reportedly will not vote on the deal until the administration clarifies its package of incentives, as well as the issues of Jerusalem and a freeze extension, in writing.

The U.S. offer of incentives to freeze Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank for an additional 90 days is said to include a gift of an additional 20 F-35 stealth fighter jets in addition to the 20 Israel already has committed to buy at a cost of $3 billion, a promise to veto anti-Israel motions in international bodies and security guarantees.

Israeli attorney general orders E. Jerusalem building sealed


Israel’s attorney general has ordered Jerusalem officials to seal off a seven-story Jewish building in eastern Jerusalem.

Eight Jewish families live in Beit Yonatan, located in the predominately Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. The building was expanded in 2004 by the right-wing group Ateret Cohanim.

Several courts have ordered the building to be evacuated and sealed in recent years, but the orders have not been enforced.

Local building codes mandate that buildings can be no more than four stories.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has delayed carrying out the evacuation order, and had been working on a plan to deal with illegal construction in Silwan that included grandfathering in Beit Yonatan and at least 70 illegally built Palestinian homes. Barkat had threatened to raze the Palestinian homes if he was required to carry out the evacuation of Beit Yonatan.

Barkat relented earlier this year and said he would uphold the court order.

Netanyahu updates Cabinet on U.S. settlement freeze proposal


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will present to his Cabinet an American proposal to convince Israel to again freeze settlement construction in an effort to resume peace talks with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu updated the Cabinet on the American offer Sunday during its regular meeting. Netanyahu met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday in New York for seven hours.

“This proposal was raised during my talks with Secretary of State Clinton.  It is still not final; it is still being formulated by Israeli and the American teams.  If and when it is complete, I will bring this proposal to the appropriate Government forum, which in this case is the Cabinet.  In any case, I insist that any proposal meet the State of Israel’s security needs, both in the immediate term and vis-à-vis the threats that we will face in the coming decade,” Netanyahu told the Cabinet at the beginning of Sunday’s meeting.

The U.S. reportedly has offered to supply 20 F-35 stealth fighter jets in a deal worth $3 billion; to veto all United Nations Security Council and international resolutions that criticize or delegitimize Israel; and to provide Israel with additional security guarantees once a peace deal is reached. The U.S. deal requires Israel to halt all construction in the West Bank for 90 days, including on building work in process, and says that the U.S. will not ask for an extension of the new freeze.

A 10-month Israeli freeze on construction in the West Bank ended on Sept. 26. President Obama has said he believes that he can help Israel and the Palestinians to agree on final borders for Israel and a Palestinian state during a three-month settlement construction freeze.

At a meeting of Netanyahu’s Likud Party ministers before the Cabinet meeting, at least four ministers, including two vice premieres, reportedly expressed vehement opposition to a second West Bank construction freeze.

Palestinians leaders also reportedly are against the deal, because it does not include a freeze on construction in eastern Jerusalem. The United States reportedly has not consulted with the Palestinians on the deal it offered to Netanyahu.

“Jerusalem is not a settlement. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” said a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office last week.

Bibi pushing quiet diplomacy in bid to restart talks


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he is “in the midst of sensitive diplomatic contacts with the U.S. administration” in the effort to continue peace talks with the Palestinians.

In a statement Sunday at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu called the direct peace negotiations begun one month ago “a vital interest for the State of Israel.” He urged his ministers to “be patient, act responsibly, calmly and—above all—quietly.”

“Now is not the time for issuing statements. We have no interest in causing an uproar,” the Israeli leader said. “Neither do I have the possibility of denying the baseless media report.  But I do have an interest in responding calmly and responsibly in order to advance the diplomatic process.  We will quietly consider the situation and the complex reality away from the spotlights.”

The executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Committee on Oct. 1 voted to halt negotiations with Israel unless it reinstates a construction moratorium in settlements. The Arab League is set to meet Friday on the issue.

Meanwhile, the London-based Arabic language Asharq al-Awsat newspaper cited Israeli officials Monday in its report saying that Netanyahu has agreed to extend the building freeze by 60 days in return for an incentive package from the Obama administration.

At least half of Netanyahu’s 30-member Cabinet opposes reinstating the construction freeze, according to a poll in the daily Yediot Achronot.

Netanyahu trying to convince top ministers to extend settlement freeze


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will convene his forum of top ministers on Tuesday afternoon to debate extending Israel’s moratorium on construction in West Bank settlements for 60 days.

The concession would be made in exchange for a series of reported U.S. guarantees in Israel’s direct peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Israel halted construction temporarily for 10 months, a freeze that ended on September 26.

The Palestinians have said they would not continue the recently renewed negotiations unless Israel agreed to halt construction again. The Obama administration has urged Israel to reconsider its refusal of that demand.

If Netanyahu succeeds in convincing the Forum of Seven to accept an extension of the construction freeze, he plans to bring the matter to the political-security cabinet for a vote later Tuesday.

Read more at HAARETZ.com.

Sides work to save Mideast peace talks as freeze expires


From NYTimes.com:

Israel allowed a politically charged freeze on Jewish settlement building in the West Bank to expire on Sunday, but the Palestinians did not carry out a threat to quit peace negotiations, setting the stage for further frantic efforts to keep the talks alive.

For President Obama, who had publicly called on Israel to extend the freeze, the Israeli decision was another setback in what has been a tortuous effort to help resolve one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

American officials spent Sunday desperately seeking a formula to satisfy both sides — an effort that failed to produce a compromise from the Israelis but that may have helped persuade the Palestinians to delay a decision on abandoning the talks until the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, consults with Arab leaders in coming days.

Read more at NYTimes.com.

Op/Ed: Ill-advised settlement freeze weakened Israel strategically


On Sunday, Sept. 26, we will celebrate the end of the ill-advised building moratorium in the Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).

Ten months ago, Israel unilaterally declared this unprecedented step as a supposed incentive to encourage the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. We now find ourselves in an extremely weakened strategic position as we begin peace talks under threats from all sides that all will be lost unless we extend and increase this freeze on people’s lives.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told me repeatedly in private, as he has told the Israeli people, that all citizens of Israel will be allowed to build again beginning next week. This is the right policy for Israel, and the Likud Party together with a majority of Israeli citizens will provide full backing to the prime minister on this important decision.

There are numerous reasons why the building moratorium policy was the wrong decision at the wrong time for Israel.

Leaving aside the extreme unjust implications on the lives of our citizens, the long-term strategic damage of the freeze is something that must be rectified immediately. Israel has never before declared a building freeze—even when negotiations with the Palestinians were at their most intense under the left-wing governments of Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak.

There was sound strategic thinking behind this policy: Why should we declare at the outset that our historic and legal claims to these lands are less legitimate than those of the Palestinians? Why should we put our peoples’ lives on hold while our Palestinian neighbors continued to build unabated, putting facts on the ground in this disputed territory as they expand their existing cities—even building a brand-new metropolis with full financial and logistic support from the Americans and the Europeans?

We now enter these negotiations with an extremely dangerous fait accompli: that it is illegitimate to build anywhere in Judea and Samaria, and doing so somehow is more dangerous to the prospects for peace than the thousands of rockets aimed at Israeli population centers by the Hamas regime in Gaza. This is not the ideology of the Likud Party and its coalition partners, who triumphed in the 2009 elections. Rather it’s the viewpoint of extreme left-wing groups that have been discredited at the ballot box.

From a pure humanitarian standpoint, the freeze has been highly unfair to the Israeli residents of Judea and Samaria. It is important to remember that these Israeli citizens have broken no laws. On the contrary, a vast majority of them were encouraged by successive Israeli governments and all the leading political parties—Labor, Likud and Kadima—to settle in these historic areas. These “settlers” are the cream of the crop of the Israeli population, serving in our most elite army units and active in all parts of Israeli cultural, business and social life.

Last November, the Israeli government decided out of the blue to essentially freeze their lives. Since then, young couples have been unable to build new homes for which they already had begun paying mortgages. Families have been prohibited from expanding their houses for their growing families. Our government basically has designated the residents of Judea and Samaria as second-class citizens, enacting draconian rules that don’t apply to anyone else in our country.

Some Netanyahu supporters have claimed that the objective of the freeze was to call Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ bluff and unmask his real intentions about his unwillingness to reach a negotiated settlement to this century-old conflict. This, too, is a dangerous strategy that has been tried before. Barak publicly made that argument with reference to Yasser Arafat following the failed Camp David talks in the summer of 2000.

We all know the results of that experiment: almost a decade of Palestinian-instigated bloodshed that claimed the lives of more than a thousand innocent Israeli citizens. We cannot risk repeating this mistake.

It is clear now that our government policy regarding a building moratorium in Judea and Samaria was mistaken from both a moral and strategic standpoint.

The good news is that this mistake can be rectified. If the prime minister and his Cabinet stay true to their word and end the freeze, then we will make clear to our own citizens, the Palestinians and the world our true intentions and goals. We all want peace and an end this conflict, but we are not ready to enact ill-advised, unjust and dangerous policies that only serve extreme elements on all sides while moving us further away from the peaceful and prosperous existence for which we so desperately strive.

Danny Danon is the deputy speaker of Israel’s Knesset and chairman of World Likud.

Barely months into talks, will the freeze freeze a peace deal?


When the fat lady sings on Sept. 26, it may only be an intermission.

That’s the word from an array of Mideast experts across the political spectrum. They are predicting that the seeming intractability between Israel and the Palestinians over whether Israel extends a settlement moratorium beyond its end date will not scuttle the peace talks.

Instead, the observers say, the sides are likely employing the brinksmanship that has come to characterize Middle East peacemaking.

“Is this is a last-minute minuet before a compromise on both sides?” asked Steve Rosen, the former director of foreign policy at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “I don’t see the kind of anxiety you would associate with a collapse. They seem to be acting with something up their sleeve.”

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, also saw compromise in the offing.

“Neither party can afford to be seen as scuttling the talks,” he said.

Israelis and Palestinians both are speaking—off the record, at least—in terms of an imminent threat of rupture, just weeks after direct negotiations restarted. Such talk begs the question of why the Obama administration relaunched the talks with much fanfare if the sides were not ready to go.

“It’s almost inconceivable that the administration would have gone down this road with all the hype without push and pull for both sides” on the settlement issue, said Aaron David Miller, a longtime negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations, and now a fellow at The Woodrow Wilson Center.

Miller noted the praise lavished by Obama on the negotiators and the inclusion of the Egyptian and Jordanian leaders in the launch of the talks.

If the deadline scuttles the talks, he said, “it will go down as being one of the more boneheaded plays in the history of negotiations.”

Miller said he believes that the sides were bluffing when they hinted—or outright said—no compromise was possible.

Each side has sent out mixed signals. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said last week that there was “no choice” but to go ahead with talks, before meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. At the same time, his aides were leaking to the media that continuing the talks depended on an extension of the moratorium on Israeli construction in the settlements.

Israeli officials have suggested that they are preparing some kind of extension by telling American Jewish groups that they will need their backing when the Israeli settlement movement reacts adversely to a building freeze beyond Sept. 26.

On the other hand, in a conference call Monday with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not mention the possibility of a compromise. And his top aide, Ron Dermer, made it sound as if Israeli officials were bracing for a period of tensions over the settlement issue.

“We might have to agree to disagree for the next few months,” Dermer said on the issue of settlements. The carrot for the Palestinians, he said, was a final-status agreement that would put both sides past the settlement issue.

The question is how to get past the looming Sept. 26 date—or at least Sept. 30, when Israel’s Sukkot holidays end and the construction industry returns to work.

Ibish predicted that Abbas and his negotiators could live with Israel moving ahead with the building starts that have been put on hold for 10 months, when Netanyahu imposed the moratorium—as many as 2,000, according to an Americans for Peace Now analysis—but only if the Netanyahu government did not launch major new projects.

“Whatever the Israelis say, no one is going to believe it because of the grandfathering built in” to the moratorium, Ibish said. “What’s important that the Israelis don’t do anything further to radically alter the landscape.”

That would include holding back on major starts outside the “consensus areas,” settlement blocks adjacent to Israel that are likely to be incorporated in a final deal in exchange for land swaps. According to this view, it would also mean no building in a corridor between Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim that would choke off the main north-south route; no land appropriations; and no building in eastern Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods.

Rosen, who now directs the Middle East Forum’s Washington project, said an out may be Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader who is now in Washington and New York to meet with U.S. and United Nations officials.

As defense minister, Barak has veto over new initiatives: He could nix them while the Palestinians look the other way regarding settlement projects already in the pipeline. At the same time, Barak’s reputation as a go-it-alone dove could give Netanyahu cover with settlers. The prime minister could tell hawks that Barak is slightly out of control.

Meantime, each side is trying to extract as much as it can or concede as little as possible before talks continue, said Scott Lasensky, an analyst with the congressionally funded U.S. Institute of Peace who tracks the region.

“Brinksmanship is a hallmark of Arab-Israeli negotiation. There’s no doubt the question will go to the last minute with uncertainty,” he said. “There’s been some good will, there’s been a warming of ties, everyone has an interest in making sure that this is renewed.”

Brinksmanship, on the other hand, often develops a momentum of its own, and there’s a chance it could scuttle the talks by the deadline, said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank.

The risk now, Makovsky said, was that with the talks still in their early stages, the sides were more beholden to hard-line constituencies than they were to a breakthrough.

“They don’t know if a deal is reachable, so why alienate your constituencies if a deal isn’t reachable yet,” he said.

Stephen P. Cohen, another longtime Middle East watcher and backer of an Israeli-Palestinian deal who has consulted with members of the Obama foreign policy team, said the administration’s leverage was the imminence of a permanent-status deal.

“I think Bibi [Netanyahu] wants to make a substantive agreement that would convince Abu Mazen [Abbas] that it’s worth staying even though he hasn’t renewed the settlement freeze because the substantive agreement allows Abu Mazen to stay,” said Cohen, the president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development.

U.S. reportedly pushing three-month freeze extension


The Obama administration reportedly suggested that Israel extend its current settlement freeze for three months, which Israel appears to have rejected.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made the suggestion Wednesday night during her meeting in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, according to reports Thursday citing the the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq Al Awsat.

In a statement issued to Israeli media Thursday morning, the Prime Minister’s Office said, “We do not comment on the content of negotiations. The position of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding the time period allotted in advance for the West Bank settlement freeze is well known, and has not changed.”

In the days leading up to the opening of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Netanyahu had stated that building will continue in West Bank settlements after the 10-month moratorium is lifted Sept. 26. He later backtracked, saying construction could be limited in scope.

Abbas accepted Clinton’s suggestion, Asharq Al Awsat reported.

The suggestion reportedly proposed that once the borders of the new Palestinian state are set during those three months, Israel could resume building in areas that will remain under its control.

In a briefing about the meetings on Wednesday night, U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell confirmed that settlements and the moratorium had been discussed, although he would not release details.

“We believe that these negotiations, having begun and having moved very quickly to serious and substantive discussions, should continue,” Mitchell said. “And that has been and remains our policy. We recognize that there are serious issues and challenges that are highly sensitive politically for both parties and for both leaders. We have and do encourage them to engage directly on those issues, and we join with them to share our views on how best to deal with them.”

Abbas says he will not compromise


Mahmoud Abbas said he will not compromise during peace negotiations on core issues such as final borders and the status of Jerusalem.

The Palestinian Authority president also said in an interview with the Jerusalem-based Al-Quds newspaper that he rejects Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that he recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He said the issue is a ploy by Netanyahu to deny Israeli Arabs the right of return to their former homes in Israel.

Meanwhile, Abbas told reporters late Monday that he has asked the United States “to intervene on the settlement issue” and prevent Netanyahu from lifting a 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank.

Israel has said it will not extend the freeze, which is scheduld to end Sept. 26, though it may only lift the freeze in settlement blocs that are likely to remain with Israel in a final peace deal. Abbas has said he will quit the peace negotiations if the freeze does not remain in place.

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