Israel mum on freezing in J'lem

4-month construction halt could result in resumption of direct negotiations.

Ramat Shlomo construction 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Ramat Shlomo construction 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Israeli officials would not reveal on Wednesday whether the government would respond positively to a US demand for a four-month halt to construction in east Jerusalem, in exchange for the Palestinians agreeing to direct talks with Israel during this period.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made this demand himself months ago, soon after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in November declared a 10-month West Bank settlement housing-start moratorium, which Abbas demanded be extended to east Jerusalem.
When Netanyahu refused, the Palestinians refused to return to the negotiation table.
Haaretz reported on Wednesday that the four-month freeze was one of the demands that US President Barack Obama was making of Israel. A source close to one of the ministers in the inner cabinet confirmed the report, but would give no further details. The proposed freeze is believed to be for Jewish construction not only in Arab neighborhoods beyond the pre-1967 lines in the capital, but also for Jewish neighborhoods such as Ramot, Neveh Ya’acov, Pisgat Ze’ev and French Hill.
Abbas alluded to this demand during comments he made over the weekend at the Arab League meeting in Libya, saying that US Middle East envoy George Mitchell told him Washington was seeking a four-month freeze on construction in Jerusalem.
US officials said that Mitchell has yet to set a date for his next visit to the region, an indication that an agreement on how to relaunch talks is not on the horizon.
The Prime Minister’s Office, meanwhile, is remaining mum on what precisely the Obama administration is demanding of Israel, with one official saying that various details that have trickled out are in the realm of “speculation.”
Among the details are that Obama has asked for written responses to between eight and 13 demands, including stopping Jewish construction in east Jerusalem for four months, not proceeding with plans to build in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, stopping the demolition of Arab homes in east Jerusalem and opening a Palestinian commercial office there.
The US president has also reportedly demanded that Israel agree to talk about the core issues of the conflict – borders, settlements, Jerusalem and refugees – during proximity talks, as well as to release Palestinian security prisoners so as to bolster PA President Mahmoud Abbas, to turn over parts of the West Bank in Areas B and C, currently under joint Israel-Palestinian or complete Israel security control, to the PA, and to lift the blockade of the Gaza Strip.
While a few ministers in Netanyahu’s seven member inner cabinet – Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Israel Beiteinu), Minister-without-Portfolio Bennie Begin (Likud) and Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) – have publicly made clear that there could be no end to construction in east Jerusalem, there is a school of thought in Washington maintaining that Israel and the US are close to an accommodation. Once this accommodation is reached, according to this thinking, the US would pressure the Palestinians and the Arab league to return to negotiations and to take confidence-building measures toward Israel.
Among the ideas being floated is for Israel not to publicly announce any freeze in east Jerusalem, but rather to reach a tacit agreement with the US whereby there would be no new building there during the four-month period. Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Labor) is believed to be pushing inside the “Septet” inner cabinet for an agreement on the matter with the US.
US officials, meanwhile, wouldn’t confirm reports on Wednesday of the nature of requests the Obama administration has made of Netanyahu.
“The secretary and the president discussed with the prime minister specific actions the government of Israel might take to improve the atmosphere for peace and keep the proximity talks moving forward,” noted one administration official. “But we are not getting into the details of those conversations, or getting into an analysis of all the speculation about them that’s been in the media.”
Obama continued to dial down the heat in the US-Israel clash, calling the dispute a “disagreement among friends about how to move forward,” in comments from an interview posted on the MSNBC Web site.
He said that “Prime Minister Netanyahu intellectually understands that he has got to take some bold steps. I think politically he feels it,” but added, “It’s not just on the Israeli side. I’ve been very clear that the Palestinians have to take steps.”
In the interview, Obama stressed that “the underlying relationship is solid as a rock. So my commitment, my personal commitment, to Israel’s security is unwavering, and I think that there is broad bipartisan consensus on that.”
Pro-Israel advocates have criticized the White House for calling for additional concessions from Israel even as the Palestinians have refused to engage in direct negotiations and even pulled away from nascent indirect talks, charging that the US approach is one-sided. They have also asked for the US to provide clear assurances of the strength of the US-Israel relationship.
The Hill, a Washington-based newspaper that covers Congress and political campaigns, ran a story on Wednesday headlined “Jewish donors may be chilled by Israel policy.”
The story quoted former New York City mayor Ed Koch, who in 2008 wasoriginally a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton for president but whoafter the Democratic nomination went to Obama campaigned for him in thekey state of Florida, as saying, “When I decided to vote for Obama, Isaid he was as strong in his support for the State of Israel andsecurity as John McCain. But I was wrong when it came to equating Obamawith McCain on Israel.”
The story quoted Jewish Democratic fund-raisers and donors as sayingObama could “lose significant financial support and votes” because ofthe administration’s stand on Israel, although they cautioned that itwas too soon before November 2’s midterm elections to say withcertainty.
The report cited sources familiar with US Jewish fund-raising as sayingthat Jewish donors are believed to make up 25 to 50 percent of theDemocratic Party’s major contributors – those who give more than$25,000.
Obama, according to 2008 exit polls, captured some 78% of the Jewish vote.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.