Likud rebels cast doubt on US pledges, warn of party split

J'lem committee cancels discussion of 1,000 new homes; Begin slams Netanyahu for not honoring promises; Clinton hails PM’s ‘serious effort.’

November 16, 2010 00:41
Apartment construction in Givat Ze'ev

Givat Ze'ev construction 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

While the US on Monday heaped further praise on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for moving toward a renewed settlement freeze, ministers and other hardliners from his Likud party stepped up their campaign to block it, going so far as to suggest that some of the ostensible US incentives may not hold true.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein told The Jerusalem Post that he and other Likud skeptics are not convinced that, despite assurances to the contrary, the US will give its support in writing to continued Jewish construction in east Jerusalem or to a commitment that the mooted 90-day freeze would be the last such moratorium on new construction in the settlements.

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Furthermore, Likud rebels are warning, an American promise of a guaranteed one-year US veto in the Security Council against any Palestinian moves to unilaterally seek statehood, rather than representing a benefit for Israel, constitutes something of a threat, since it opens the door to the possibility that, after the year is over, the US might in fact support Palestinian unilateral moves.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Regional Planning Committee has removed from its agenda discussions on more than a thousand housing units in the Gilo neighborhood set for Tuesday. The municipal spokesman refused to draw a link between the change of agenda and any political considerations, and stressed that the city is a city like any other, with ongoing bureaucratic issues pertaining to its natural growth.

In Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters that she was encouraged by Netanyahu’s moves to push the freeze through the cabinet.

“This is a very promising development and a serious effort by Prime Minister Netanyahu,” Clinton said.

“We’re in very close touch with the Israelis and the Palestinians, working intensively to create the conditions for the resumption of negotiations that can lead to a two-state solution and comprehensive peace in the region,” she said.

The US wants the resumption of talks on all final-status issues, she said, and added that “the status quo is unacceptable.”

In remarks marking the start of Id al-Adha, the Muslim festival of the sacrifice, Netanyahu said, “We are trying to renew negotiations with our Palestinian neighbors and to advance peace agreements with other Arab nations.”

But even as Netanyahu tried to sway opposing cabinet members to support the agreement he is hammering out with the US, MKs from his own Likud Party met in the Knesset on Monday to stop him.

Those present included: Edelstein, coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin, Danny Danon, Yariv Levin, Tzipi Hotovely, Miri Regev and Haim Katz.

They agreed to formulate a “lightning campaign” intended to sway Shas not to abstain in the vote on the deal when Netanyahu brings it to the 15- member security cabinet.

Shas has made its planned abstention from this cabinet vote – an abstention that would likely give Netanyahu a narrow majority in favor of the freeze – dependent on an explicit commitment to increased building in Jerusalem throughout the period of the freeze, and in key West Bank settlements following the moratorium’s conclusion.

Danon told the Post that he had written a letter to Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in which he called upon the rabbi to “check if it is really true” and to “ask to see in writing” American commitments regarding continued building following the end of the proposed three-month moratorium.

The anti-freeze Likud MKs believe that the two Shas ministers with votes in the security cabinet are leaning in opposite directions, with Interior Minister Eli Yishai tending toward opposing the freeze and Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias leaning toward supporting it.

The Likud opponents also want to erase Netanyahu’s narrow margin of support among the seven security cabinet members who are expected to support Netanyahu when he brings the deal to a vote.

Although Minister-without-Portfolio Bennie Begin did not attend Monday’s Knesset meeting, he gave the freeze opponents a strong boost on Monday evening when he broke two days of silence to denounce the intended move.

“Government promises must be followed through,” said Begin, in reference to his own pledges and that of Netanyahu that the first freeze on new construction, which ended on September 26, was a onetime deal.

Begin, who is believed to be the man who can best rally the party’s right wing, told Channel 2, “One should have been able to anticipate the actions of recent days, and if they weren’t taken into consideration in advance, that is strange to me. Someone needs to offer some explanations.”

Edelstein said that in speaking with cabinet members, “We decided that the main effort will be directed in the next two days to try to convince Likud ministers and MKs that nobody can sit on the fence on this issue.”

Edelstein, the only minister to attend the meeting, said the antifreeze campaigners would try to have as many Likud ministers and MKs as possible sign a letter voicing their opposition to the freeze.

“I think that this is a very bad situation for the Likud,” Edelstein responded when asked if his party could split over a second freeze.

“The participants in the meeting aren’t some extreme elements that infiltrated the Likud. These are Likudniks. And if they remain bitter and disappointed, it would be very serious for the party. I would not want to be the one who has to organize and rally the faction around major issues after we go in to a freeze.”

Should efforts to block the freeze in the security cabinet fail, the Likud MKs promised that they would consider more serious sanctions against the coalition, including boycotting key votes in Knesset committees.

Meeting with the deputy chairwoman of the German Bundestag in Jerusalem, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin also voiced discomfort with the proposal.

“The freeze has created a serious argument in both the Knesset and the Israeli public. The possibility that Israel will stand alone before the UN Security Council without an American veto creates a new situation in the Middle East, and that must be examined in a long-term perspective,” Rivlin said.

“Israelis now wonder: What will happen next time that there is a disagreement with the Americans? From now on, will every step that Israel takes be measured against the threat of the Americans rescinding their veto?” Separately, Jerusalem’s Local Planning Committee removed from its agenda for Monday a discussion of the request of a contractor to change the designation of a plot of land from a hotel to apartments.

The plot in southern Jerusalem, which lies between Beit Safafa and Gilo, has already received approval for a private entrepreneur to build a hotel. He recently decided that he’d rather build three apartment buildings instead.

The Local Committee made its agenda for this Monday public last Thursday, a few hours before the marathon New York meeting between Netanyahu and Clinton.

The municipality released a statement saying the committee is bound by law to discuss such a request, which was likely to be denied since the city encourages the construction of hotel rooms, as the capital has a shortage of them.

On Monday, the request was removed from the agenda. The municipality said in a statement that this was done “to examine the ramifications of changing the plot’s designation from a hotel to private living units, in light of the city’s policy on this issue.”

A spokesman for the municipality denied that the committee might have removed the topic from the agenda to prevent unwanted hubbub in the current politically tense environment, and stressed that there has never been a construction freeze in Jerusalem.

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