'US aware of de facto settlement freeze'

PMO denies reports of secret settlement freeze deal; right-wing ministers: Cabinet must approve decision.

palestinians construction 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
palestinians construction 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
US Middle East envoy George Mitchell is well aware that the Netanyahu government has not approved any new building starts in the West Bank since taking office on March 31, a senior diplomatic source noted Tuesday, signaling that a de facto settlement freeze has already been in effect for more than four months. While the government has not trumpeted this policy, in an apparent effort not to stir up unrest in the coalition, the fact that the government has not approved any new building has been known to "those who need to know," one senior diplomatic official said recently. The Prime Minister's Office denied reports, however, that there had been any secret agreement on a settlement freeze between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias. Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Mitchell on August 26 in London to discuss the settlement issue and the diplomatic process. US President Barack Obama - during a press conference in the Oval Office with visiting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday - welcomed reports Israel was not approving new West Bank construction, saying that "there has been movement in the right direction" and that "the Israeli government has taken discussion with us very seriously." "My hope is that we are going to see not just movement from the Israelis, but also from the Palestinians around issues of incitement and security, from Arab states that show their willingness to engage Israel," Obama said. "If all sides are willing to move off of the rut that we're in currently, then I think there is an extraordinary opportunity to make real progress, but we're not there yet. I'm encouraged by some of the things I'm seeing on the ground." US officials said recently that the US and Israel were making progress on the issue and heading toward a conclusion. Less sanguine about the matter, however, were some of Netanyahu's coalition partners, with some right-wing ministers saying any construction freeze must be brought to the cabinet for a decision. This demand adds further pressure on Netanyahu from the Right, a day after four of his ministers visited unauthorized West Bank outposts and called to legalize them. The ministers said the pressure was purposely timed to strengthen Netanyahu ahead of his meeting with Mitchell. "We will act inside the cabinet and achieve the necessary results," Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein said. "The current situation is becoming similar to the unilateral withdrawals where we withdrew for nothing. Now we're freezing for nothing. I raised the issue several times in the cabinet, and I will again. These things will lead the cabinet to the right decision," he said. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon of Israel Beiteinu said that while his party opposed freezing settlement construction, he understood the need to reach an agreement with the United States, and therefore he opposed holding a vote on the status quo. "We're in the midst of sensitive negotiations with the Americans," Ayalon said. "If there is a freeze, it must be part of a comprehensive regional framework. But now the diplomatic process has not been exhausted, so holding a vote on such a narrow issue would not serve anything, and it's not the right thing to do." The National Union Party said it would protest against Netanyahu and Attias, accusing them of "continuing the policies of the Oslo criminals." National Union MK Michael Ben-Ari called Attias the "minister of freezing and destruction." "In the history of the Jewish People, there have never been Jewish leaders who have done evil against their nation like Netanyahu has and completely frozen building in the biblical Land of Israel and Jerusalem," National Union head Ya'acov Katz said. "I call on the heads of Shas [Attias's party] to refrain from participating in the terrible tragedy that Netanyahu is causing to the haredi public, where young couples are forced to live in storefronts and for the first time are considering leaving the country." Attias defended the freeze, calling it temporary and saying that it was intended to obtain international support for building in the settlement blocs later on. He denied a rift with his more hawkish party chairman, Eli Yishai, who visited outposts on Monday. "Eli Yishai understands that we're merely in a waiting period," Attias said. "We cooperate and we get along very well. There is no dispute between us, and when we disagree, we solve it between us. Unity does not mean agreeing on everything." Netanyahu received unexpected support from Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, a fierce critic of freezing settlement construction. "Bibi didn't accept a complete freeze," Rivlin said. "I believe in Bibi, and I am sure he will persuade the world to reach agreements without harming Israel's security and its wholeness. "Bibi comes from a good home and suckled ideology from his first meal. He is also a statesman, but he cannot and will not escape his belief that Israel belongs to Israel, not just because of the Holocaust, but because of the Bible and Jewish history, which prevents making compromises on the Land of Israel." Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report from Washington.•