PM insists he'll win support for freeze; no J'lem deal yet

"My fellow ministers will accept [the freeze and incentives package]," says Netanyahu; talks continue with Washington on language.

bibi and hillary_311 (photo credit: (Mary Altaffer/AP))
bibi and hillary_311
(photo credit: (Mary Altaffer/AP))
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu voiced confidence on Thursday night that he will win security cabinet backing for a 90-day settlement freeze, even as American and Israeli officials continued to struggle over the details of the moratorium itself and an accompanying incentives package.
At the heart of the ongoing discussions, officials close to Netanyahu say, is the question of how the US will indicate that the freeze does not apply to east Jerusalem, and the issue of whether the US will specify that this will be the last request for a moratorium.
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Netanyahu's ministerial majority may hinge on the votes of the two Shas members in the security cabinet, and they have said they will oppose him if the US does not explicitly confirm in writing that building throughout Jerusalem will be permitted during the freeze. But the US is proving highly reluctant to make such a written pledge, it is understood. Furthermore, the Palestinian leadership would likely stay away from direct talks if the US stated clearly that east Jerusalem building was permitted.
"I have no doubt that my fellow ministers will accept [the freeze and incentives package]," Netanyahu said during a speech at the Israel Institute of Technology-Technion in Haifa.
Opponents of a freeze insisted on Thursday that no amount of well-crafted language could erase the differences with Washington, particularly on the issue of east Jerusalem construction.
The top-level negotiations on a US document setting out the terms included a phone conversation on Wednesday between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
There were several reports in the past two days that a cabinet vote on the matter was imminent, but the government, as of press time on Thursday, had yet to receive the much anticipated US document.
Israel expects the document to state that the US will oppose unilateral Palestinians declarations of statehood in the UN Security Council for a year and will provide Israel with 20 F-35 advanced fighter jets worth $3 billion when they are manufactured later in the decade.
Israeli officials have indicated they expect the document to imply that east Jerusalem will not be included in the freeze, by stating that this freeze is an extension of the previous one. That freeze did not include east Jerusalem.
But at issue is how much written clarity Shas will demand on the issue of Jerusalem.
Netanyahu and Barak held an urgent midnight meeting on Wednesday with Shas chairman Eli Yishai, after Netanyahu had failed in a meeting earlier in the day to convince Yishai to commit to supporting the freeze, or at least to abstaining during the cabinet vote.
Yishai remained resolute, demanding a commitment to renewed building in the West Bank immediately following the freeze's expiration, as well as a written US commitment that building throughout Jerusalem will continue at full force during the course of the freeze.
Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon, one of the most vocal Likud opponents of the moratorium proposal, has reportedly requested a meeting with Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, to attempt to convince him to oppose the freeze.
If Yosef were to instruct Shas's two security cabinet members, Yishai and Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias, to vote against the moratorium, it would likely be defeated.
Even as Netanyahu worked behind the scenes to insure the document's passage, US officials have refused to talk about it or to confirm details.
US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Thursday in Washington, "We are obviously engaged. We are working intensely with both parties." When asked whether the US discussed, in its conversations with the Palestinians, the possibility that the new freeze might exclude east Jerusalem, Toner said, "We are trying to create the conditions to get them back into direct negotiations." He continued, "We are trying to get them back in, because we know that is the only way all these issues can be eventually resolved." In Haifa, Netanyahu said, "We maintain intensive contacts with the American administration. Our goal is to formulate understandings through which we can advance the diplomatic process, while maintaining Israel's vital interests, first and foremost of which is defense." As prime minister, he said, it was his responsibility to guarantee Israel's security and it was with that sole objective in mind that he was evaluating the incentives package with the US.
Fledgling talks between Israelis and Palestinians broke down on September 26, when the 10-month moratorium on new settlement construction expired. The Palestinians have insisted that they will not hold direct talks with Israel until Jewish building has stopped in West Bank settlements and in east Jerusalem.
The US has pressured Israel to accept a 90-day freeze in hopes of rekindling the talks.
On Thursday, some centrist politicians lent their voice to the mostly right-wing opponents of the 90-day freeze proposal.
Kadima MK Shaul Mofaz argued that agreeing to reinstate a building moratorium would be a strategic mistake.
"After these three months, Israel will be asked to do another freeze and another freeze," warned Mofaz, speaking at an event sponsored by the left-wing Geneva Initiative. "We will not get out of this mud until a decision is made regarding borders and security arrangements." Still, Mofaz also said Kadima would support Netanyahu if he championed a substantive peace effort.
Meanwhile, the three-MK Habayit Hayehudi, the smallest faction in the coalition, stepped up its rhetoric against the moratorium. Although it is the only party viewed likely to leave the government should the freeze pass the cabinet, the party has remained largely silent on the issue in recent days.
Party chairman Daniel Herschkowitz told party activists that he "firmly and on principle opposes a moratorium, regardless of any package that Israel could receive, simply because a freeze is immoral." Herschkowitz emphasized that if the freeze were approved by the cabinet, his party would "see itself as released from its coalition obligations." Herschkowitz's rival within the faction, MK Zevulun Orlev, also spoke out against the freeze later in the day.
"Our faction decided to firmly oppose a renewal of the freeze. We cannot be partners in a government and a coalition that so fatally harms the settlement of Judea and Samaria," Orlev said.
He added, however, that his faction "does not want to bring down Bibi [Netanyahu] and a right-wing government." Speaking to hundreds of party activists, municipal representatives and heads of religious Zionist organizations, Orlev told his supporters to begin to prepare for elections. "We must act as if the elections were just around the corner. We do not have any extra time to waste on useless internal arguments," he said.

Orlev directed barbs against potential voters who chose instead to support Likud in the last general election, telling them that "religious Zionism must wake up from its illusions ad understand that only a religious-Zionist party like the National Religious Party will be faithful to religious Zionism's values and beliefs." As part of its anti-freeze campaign, the Likud National Forum placed an add in Friday's English-language papers. It states, "Obama, Respect Israel's Will. The Likud is against the freeze." It features head-shots of the 14 Likud MKs who have signed a petition against the freeze and another three who say they oppose it, but have not signed. The party has 27 MKs in total.