Israel's cabinet split over fresh building freeze despite US offer of military aid
A US proposal offering security and diplomatic incentives to Israel in exchange for a renewal of a freeze on the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank drew an angry response from several senior Israeli ministers at a cabinet meeting today. Four cabinet members from the rightwing Likud party opposed Washington's initiative to resume peace talks, in what Israeli media described as heated discussions.
The Palestinian authority also said today that it had not been informed . "We haven't heard anything official from the Americans," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. "We are waiting for them to contact us."
The US has reportedly offered Israel a long-term security agreement, which includes the delivery of 20 F-35 fighter jets worth $3bn (£1.9bn). Washington also vowed to veto any UN security council resolution that could be damaging for Israel.
In return the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is supposed to announce a three-month extension of a settlement building freeze in the West Bank and agree to start talking about the borders of a future Palestinian state. The idea is that once the borders are settled, it will be easier to decide where building can continue and where it can't.
After today's fractious cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said the proposal was not final. "It is still being formulated by the Israeli and the American teams," he said.
Moshe Ya'alon, a vice-prime minister, was quoted as saying the US proposal was a "honey trap that will plunge us into another crisis". Silvan Shalom, another vice-prime minister and a prominent member of Netanyahu's party, reportedly said during today's Likud meeting "it isn't just about the three months; it's about a process that will eventually determine our permanent borders".
About 300,000 Jewish settlers live in the occupied West Bank. Another 200,000 live in East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel after the 1967 war and which Palestinians view as the capital of their future state.
Palestinian officials voiced today their objections to a plan that does not include an end to Jewish construction in East Jerusalem.
Direct talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis resumed last September under American auspices. A few weeks after the launching of the talks, a 10-month Israeli building moratorium expired. Since then, Israel has consistently refused to extend the building freeze.
The Palestinian Authority has made clear that it will not hold direct talks as long as building continues in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. It argues that the ever growing presence of Jewish settlers in the occupied territories undermines the viability of any future Palestinian state.
Analysts believe that Netanyahu will find it difficult to obtain an agreement from his coalition on any kind of freeze. Several members of his cabinet have repeatedly opposed any further limitation on settlement expansion, including the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, himself a settler.
"We will not accept any freeze not for three months, not for two months and not for a single day," said Lieberman during a tour of the Golan Heights last Thursday. The Yesha council, the organisation which represents West Bank settlers said in a statement that the US offer "if accepted, represents a fundamental collapse of our government's integrity and national resilience. The Israeli leadership should never allow its citizens to become pawns to the whims of the international community."
Figures released by Peace Now, an Israeli non-governmental organisation, show that settlers almost made up for the 10-month freeze during the past six weeks: they started building 1,629 housing units. Last year there were 1,888 new housing starts, according to the Israel's central bureau of statistics. Most of the new housing starts were in isolated settlements, deep in the West Bank and almost all of the projects were private initiatives, according to Peace Now. "Contactors used old permits, issued years ago as the current Israeli government granted very few new permits in the past months," said Hagit Ofran, settlement expert from the Israeli peace group.
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