There is “no way” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will extend the 10-month settlement construction moratorium beyond its September 26 expiration, Minister-without-Portfolio Bennie Begin said on Tuesday, amid signs that domestic jockeying over the issue had begun in earnest.
The issue of whether the government will extend the housing-start moratorium, which was declared in November to entice the Palestinians to the negotiating table, is likely to be a significant cause of friction with both the Palestinian Authority and the US, which are both expected to call on Israel to extend the freeze.
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Begin, who is a member of Netanyahu’s premier decision-making body known as the septet, made his comments in the Knesset at the first meeting of the Land of Israel Lobby to discuss campaigning against an extension of the freeze.
“There is no chance that Netanyahu will extend the freeze,” Begin said. “I don’t see a situation where the prime minister will convene the security cabinet and decide to extend the freeze, even for a period of three months.
“We expect pressure to build toward the end of the period, but we need to understand that the 18th of Tishrei (the Hebrew date when the moratorium expires) is a significant and decisive strategic, security and national event for the State of Israel.”
Tuesday’s meeting of the Land of Israel Lobby was the first the newly formed group hopes to have with each of the ministers in the septet.
Another septet member, Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor, said at a press conference on Monday that Israel would not be obligated to continue the moratorium once it ends.
He said that while no policy decision on how to proceed had been formally discussed, let alone decided, he favored a partial lifting of the moratorium, saying that in his view Israel should build according to agreements reached with the previous US administration.
Those understandings gave Israel a green light to build inside settlements within the large settlement blocs that are likely to remain in Israel’s hands under any agreement with the Palestinians.
In a further indication that the issue is increasingly on the ministers’ minds, Vice Premier and Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom also addressed the matter on Tuesday, saying during a tour of Ariel that he had opposed November’s decision to freeze new settlement construction.
“I think that it was a bad mistake to make that decision before negotiations even started,” Shalom said, adding that the government needed to renew construction once the moratorium expired.
“I am having discussions with ministers and Knesset members to see how to start the construction and development at the end of the freeze,” he said.
Last week, another septet member, Vice Premier Moshe Ya’alon, vowed publicly that settlement construction would resume, saying in Maon in the South Hebron Hills, “We will renew building after the moratorium ends.”
Netanyahu, whenever he is asked whether the moratorium will be extended, says the government’s decision was clear and was made for only 10 months, which is why it garnered the wide support inside the coalition that it did.
In response to the comments on the fate of the freeze, the US indicated it was focused on the immediate priority of getting direct talks between Israel and the PA started.
“Our focus remains on moving the proximity talks forward with the ultimate goal of direct negotiations leading to comprehensive peace,” a State Department official told The Jerusalem Post.
To that end, US Middle East envoy George Mitchell is continuing his shuttling between the Israelis in Jerusalem and the Palestinians in Ramallah in hopes of getting them to beyond indirect talks.
Speaking at a benefit for the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital in Washington on Monday night, he maintained his belief that peace was possible.
Mitchell praised Netanyahu as “sincere” and having “a seriousness of purpose to what he’s doing.”
He described PA President Mahmoud Abbas as also being sincere and serious.
“They both want to get it done. They both realize – this they share in common – that time is not on their side,” he said.
“What we do not know is whether either or both are prepared to take the very difficult steps that will be necessary to realize what they’re seeking. And that will not be known until we get into direct negotiations.”
He also said peace was possible under Netanyahu and his predominantly right-wing coalition.
“There are some people who believe it’s only possible if you have a right-of-center government in Israel. It’s debatable, I think, but a credible case can be made... that a right-of-center of government will be able to take action more far-reaching than a left-of-center government,” Mitchell said.
He acknowledged that the rise of Islamic extremist elements such as Hamas – which calls for Israel’s destruction and rejects compromise – complicated his effort, but rejected the notion that it made a deal impossible.
He said the division in Palestinian governance between Hamas in Gaza
and Fatah in the West Bank will have to be worked through “when we get
to that phase,” opening the door to eventual talks with Hamas.
He explained, “What we have to do is get a process going, create an
incentive for participation, and then say everyone is welcome, provided
you are prepared to accept democratic principles, and the principles
that are laid out very clearly for Hamas.”
Though he said the process required patience and perseverance, he
hinted at a time limit for the talks, a point he also made earlier on
Monday at a separate event.
Mitchell told the audience that when he took the position, he only had
one condition: he promised his wife that he wouldn’t be flying back and
forth to coax the parties as he did for a half-decade in Northern
Instead, he said, he told the Middle East players when he began his
current job last year, “No five years. We have to do it a lot faster