Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been sounding out key cabinet members on extending a freeze on new construction in West Bank settlements in hopes of keeping peace talks with the Palestinians alive, but he is encountering stiff resistance, Israeli officials said Wednesday.
In Ramallah, key members of the Palestinian leadership — in an increasingly tense waiting mode — expressed optimism that an extension nonetheless was imminent.
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Israel's normally talkative leadership has been almost completely silent in recent days as Netanyahu wrestled with what appeared to be significant US pressure to agree to some sort of extension of the construction slowdown — which was in effect 10 months and expired on Sept. 26, just weeks after the resumption of peace talks.
The Palestinians have threatened to walk out of the talks if Israel refuses to reinstate it — and another deadline of sorts has emerged with Friday's planned summit of the 22-nation Arab League, where the Palestinians expect support for whatever they decide.
US Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, has been shuttling between the sides
in an effort to find a magic formula — sparking a variety of
contradictory media reports about sweeteners the United States is
prepared to offer Netanyahu if he reverses his promises to hard-line
backers that the slowdown would not be renewed.
"There are ongoing efforts to ensure the continuation of the direct peace talks," said an Israeli official.
Another Israeli official, also speaking on condition of anonymity
because Netanyahu has ordered a media blackout, said the premier was
sounding out colleagues on a proposal to extend the slowdown for two
months. Four of the seven ministers were opposed, the official said.
Netanyahu's own position was not clear.
The Israelis are seeking various "assurances" in return for the extension.
Israeli officials also said Netanyahu has sent indirect messages to the
Arab League asking for a postponement of its vote this weekend to give
him more time to work out a deal.
In Ramallah, several senior Palestinian officials, all also speaking
privately for fear of harming the diplomatic efforts, said they expected
a resolution before Friday's Arab League meeting.
The Palestinian officials said if the settlement slowdown is extended
for two months and talks resume, the period would be used to try to
hammer out an agreement on a border between Israel and a future
Middle East specialist Aaron David Miller, a former official at the State Department said US officials expected a deal with Netanyahu shortly and hope
to use the 60-day window to work out the borders between Israel and a
future Palestine. Miller refused to say where he got his information,
though he remains in contact with key policymakers.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has pointed out several
times that once a border is drawn, the settlement issue becomes
irrelevant, because it would be clear to both sides that there would be
no Israeli settlements in a Palestinian state.
"This is a difficult moment. It's one that we anticipated," said State
Department spokesman P.J. Crowley Wednesday. "If we can successfully
work through this, then the negotiations will continue."