'PM agrees to 9-month W. Bank freeze'

PM plays down importance

Mitchell Netanyahu 248.88 (photo credit: )
Mitchell Netanyahu 248.88
(photo credit: )
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has agreed to a West Bank settlement freeze of nine months, and not the previously agreed six, Army Radio quoted Jerusalem sources as saying Friday. The reported deal came in a meeting with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, during which the possibility was also raised of Israel making additional moves to ease Palestinians' lives in order to try and convince Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to meet Netanyahu and resume the peace process. Netanyahu's meeting with Mitchell was the third this week, and following the Friday morning session, the US Middle East envoy headed to Ramallah for a meeting with Abbas. He planned to meet with Netanyahu again after his talks with the Palestinian Authority president. Between the meetings with Mitchell, the prime minister went to the home of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, where the two exchanged Rosh Hashana greetings and Yosef hailed Netanyahu's "firm stance" on the peace process. Interior Minister Eli Yishai, a new member of Netanyahu's seven-member inner cabinet, and the other Shas ministers were also present at the meeting, during which the prime minister had been expected to update them on his talks with Mitchell. The prime minister also phoned the other members of his seven-member inner cabinet, apparently to brief them on the talks with the US Middle East envoy. On the eve of the morning session with Mitchell, Netanyahu expressed indifference regarding the much discussed tripartite meeting in New York next week. "If it will be, it will be," he said in a Rosh Hashana interview on Channel 2, one of three pre-holiday television interviews he granted. "If not, not. I didn't ask for it, and I didn't put conditions on the talks." He said that as of now, no meeting has been scheduled. Mitchell, for his part, went to Cairo and Amman on Thursday, in a continued effort to put together a package that would enable a meeting at the UN General Assembly meeting next week among Netanyahu, Abbas and US President Barack Obama. Obama, according to observers in Jerusalem, is pushing hard for the meeting, hoping that a relaunch of diplomatic negotiations could be announced there - a foreign policy success to counter-balance some of his current domestic political difficulties. Abbas has stated repeatedly that he would only restart negotiations if Netanyahu declared a complete settlement freeze, something the prime minister made clear once more on Thursday night that did not intend to do. If a freeze means zero building - no houses being built, no schools, kindergartens or synagogues - then that "certainly won't be," Netanyahu said. "There are 2,400 [housing] units that are currently being built, and another 500 that we approved. Do you want to call that a freeze? I don't call it a freeze, I call it a slowdown in building - I am willing to do that to help the [diplomatic] process and in parallel to preserve normal life of the residents [of the settlements]." Mitchell, who arrived in the region on Saturday night and extended his visit here by three days because of an inability to reach the common ground that would enable a three-way-meeting in New York, is scheduled to meet with the prime minister on Friday. Netanyahu said the final borders, and the fate of the settlements, would be determined in negotiations. But, he said, "it can't be determined before we start." The prime minister reiterated his position that any agreement would have to include an end to Arab claims on Israel and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. "Abu Mazen [Abbas] has to decide, is he Arafat or Sadat," Netanyahu said. "If he is Sadat, he has to say what Sadat said: 'It is over, we will recognize Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.'" The prime minister said he would accept a Palestinian state if it were demilitarized, as a way of "avoiding the next Goldstone Report" on an Israeli military operation. Regarding the Goldstone Commission report, which accused Israel of war crimes in Gaza, Netanyahu dismissed it as the product of a "kangaroo court," and warned world leaders that if they did not come out strongly against the document now, then their soldiers could be the target of similar probes in the future. Netanyahu, who said he would be speaking to various world leaders about the report in the coming days, also said that if the world wanted Israel to take risks for peace in the future, it should affirm Israel's right to self defense now. "The same international community that clapped when we left there [the Gaza Strip, in 2005], now points an accusatory finger at us, saying we - and not Hamas - are the war criminals," the prime minister said. "So I will say to the international leaders: 'you talk about our right to self defense, that we should take risks for peace and you will support our right of self defense. Don't tell me that after the next agreement. Show it now. Stand up and condemn the report, and move to halt its ramifications.'"