(photo credit: Marc Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Even as the much-discussed letter spelling out Washington’s commitments to Israel in exchange for a renewed 90-day settlement freeze tarries in coming, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was busy on Sunday lobbying his party to support the moratorium if and when the document does arrive.
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Netanyahu met after the weekly cabinet meeting with seven Likud MKs – most of whom openly oppose another moratorium – to discuss the prospect of a freeze and shore up support.
He said he would not bring the proposal for a vote in the security cabinet without first receiving written commitments from the United States regarding the conditions of the freeze.
“I have a responsibility that includes making the best decision for Israel and its national interests, foremost its security,” Netanyahu said.
The prime minister said that Israel had not received in writing the understandings reached with the Americans.
“If we receive a written agreement, I will bring it to the cabinet and I am sure that the ministers will approve it because it is what’s best for Israel. If we don’t receive such a document, I won’t bring the issue to the security cabinet.”
Netanyahu, sounding much like Ariel Sharon did before 2005’s disengagement from Gaza, said that as prime minister, he had a responsibility to see the “whole picture.
“That is the responsibility incumbent upon me, and that is exactly what I am doing,” he said.
One government source well attuned to what is being discussed in the Prime Minister’s Office said he was unaware of an idea floated recently by influential voices outside the government that any future settlement moratorium should only begin once the Palestinians return to negotiations.
According to this idea, Israel erred last year in declaring a freeze before the Palestinians agreed to return to the talks, enabling the Palestinian Authority to burn up the bulk of the 10-month freeze without engaging in direct talks. This time, according to the proposal, the freeze should only kick in once the negotiations begin.
The government source, who termed the idea “interesting,” said he was unaware that this idea had gained any traction inside the Prime Minister’s Office or was being discussed with the Americans.
Netanyahu told the Likud MKs that he made no commitment to only talk about borders with the Palestinians during the 90-day freeze, or that at the end of this period, there would be an agreement on borders.
“There will not be separate talks on borders, but rather talks on all the significant issues,” he said.
Although MKs who attended the meeting with Netanyahu described the general tenor as “respectful and responsible,” those who opposed the 90-day building moratorium were not convinced to change their opinions.
“My problem is not the freeze or the ‘prizes’ attached to it, but rather that I have a lack of faith in this process,” said Deputy Minister for the Negev and Galilee Ayoub Kara, the only one of three Likud deputy ministers – all of whom oppose the freeze – to attend the meeting. “The Palestinians use it to create antagonism in the negotiations by refusing to make any gestures, as if the negotiations were only an Israeli interest.”
The prime minister, Kara said, told the MKs that “he is not certain that the United States will receive our demands, and not certain that the Palestinian Authority will accept them.”
Kara said that while he could understand the prime minister’s dilemmas, “I don’t think that this particular action will make the situation any better.” He called on Netanyahu to meet with the heads of the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu said he would do so.
In an interview on Israel Radio, coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), another adamant opponent of the freeze proposal who attended the meeting, said he “understands that the prime minister is insisting on demands that seem basic to him, and that only through them, can he embark on this process.”
He expressed doubt, however, that Netanyahu would be able to wring out of the United States the written commitments that he needed.
“Of course, these things will not be agreed upon,” Elkin warned. “I did not hear confidence from the prime minister that the Americans will give us a document that fully reflects the understandings that would enable him to bring the moratorium for a cabinet vote.”
Netanyahu also met on Sunday with Kadima head and opposition leader Tzipi Livni, to brief her on security and diplomatic issues. The two also discussed the selection of a new chairman for the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
No agreement on this matter was reached, and it was decided that discussion would continue in the coming days.
Israeli officials, meanwhile, would not confirm that US envoy George Mitchell – reportedly in the region – was expected in Israel soon for a meeting with Netanyahu.