Secret Netanyahu-US diplomacy to extend ‘settlement freeze’

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ISRAELI Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared on Monday that Israel and the United States were holding behind-the-scenes talks geared at resolving the recent deadlock in Middle East peace talks with the Palestinians, claiming that peace was the Zionist entity’s vital interest.

Speaking at his cabinet’s weekly meeting, Netanyahu said that Israel was ‘in the midst of sensitive diplomatic contacts with the US administration in order to find a solution that will allow the continuation of the talks.’

‘We will quietly consider the situation and the complex reality away from the spotlights,’ the Israeli PM said, advising fellow cabinet members to be patient, act responsibly, calmly and – above all – quietly. ‘This is exactly what we must do,’ he said.

Netanyahu also reiterated his commitment to the recently re-launched round of direct peace talks, saying that Israel had fully ‘lived up to our commitment, a difficult commitment that we took upon ourselves’.

Netanyahu’s comments came as a report by the London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat quoted Israeli officials as saying earlier on Monday that Netanyahu had agreed to extend Israel’s freeze on settlement construction by 60 days.

The Asharq al-Awsat report came amid recent claims that US President Barack Obama had offered Netanyahu an incentive package in exchange for keeping settlement construction at bay, a move which could quell Palestinian concerns over settlement building and consequently bring them back to the negotiations table.

According to Israeli sources quoted in the report, Netanyahu expressed his preliminary approval to extend Israel’s moratorium on settlement building, adding that he conditioned such a move on a list of US assurances, which included a continued Israeli presence in the Jordan valley and continued US political and military support.

Sources quoted in the Asharq al-Awsat piece also said Netanyahu claimed that the assurances listed would aid him in the face of the widespread internal opposition expected to such a move.

Speaking at a meeting of Likud ministers which took place shortly before the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Monday, Netanyahu made a possible reference to the Asharq al-Awsat report, saying that the time was not ripe for issuing statements.

‘We have no interest in causing an uproar, neither do I have the possibility of denying the baseless media report,’ Netanyahu said, adding that he had ‘an interest in responding calmly and responsibly in order to advance the diplomatic process.’

Meanwhie, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Sunday evening: ‘Israel must not be tempted to adopt US President Barack Obama’s suggestion to declare a two-month settlement construction moratorium, as it may lead to a forced (peace) agreement with the Palestinians and a return to the 1967 borders.’

During closed-door discussions with fellow members of his Yisrael Beiteinu party, Lieberman said, ‘The pressure won’t work.

‘We are not leaving the coalition in order to bolster the majority in government, which is against continuing the settlement construction moratorium.

‘During my recent visit to the US I learned that Washington is planning to force a permanent agreement on Israel – two states for two peoples along the 1967 borders, plus-minus 3 or 4% of the territory exchanged,’ Lieberman said. ‘This is the objective of a continued freeze – to give the US and the international community two months to come up with a solution that will be forced on Israel.’

According to the Israeli Foreign Minister, in two months’ time ‘the US, along with the Quartet, the Arab League and the Palestinians will tell Israel, “This is the solution, take it or leave it. If you don’t, there is a price – a confrontation with the international community”.

‘Therefore, we must not quit the coalition. It’s the only way to solidify a majority against the freeze, which is a decoy.’

Lieberman said Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s support for another moratorium stems from his fear that ‘in two months his friends from Labour will force him to leave the coalition and lose his portfolio.’

Lieberman said Netanyahu’s fellow Likud members are also angry with him for ‘not responding to what Barak is doing.’

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas insisted on Sunday that Israel should freeze settlement building before he returns to peace talks, a statement in Jordan said.

‘Of course we will not stop contacts with the Americans,’ the palace statement quoted him as saying following talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

‘We will continue to communicate with them to find a solution to the Israeli settlements problem, which should stop before we go back the negotiations,’ the palace quoted Abbas as saying.

‘Israel refused to renew a freeze on the settlement building, and we could not continue the talks. So now, there is a problem and we will follow up on through Arab coordination,’ Abbas added.

The Arab League Follow-up Committee on the ‘peace talks’ is due to meet to form its position on Friday in the Libyan city of Sirte.

The king also met separately with Mitchell who arrived in Amman from Cairo, where he insisted the Palestinians want peace talks with Israel to continue. He briefed the king on US ‘peace’ efforts.

Mitchell was expected to fly back to Washington following his talks on Sunday. Following a meeting on Sunday morning in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak before going to Amman, Mitchell said that both Israel and the PA, despite their differences, ‘have asked us to continue these discussions in an effort to establish the conditions under which they can continue direct negotiations. They both want to continue these negotiations, they do not want to stop the talks,’ he said.

Directly after the meeting in Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit backed the Palestinians’ refusal to negotiate with Israel as long as it continued to build West Bank settlements.

• The negotiations aimed at securing the release of Israeli occupation soldier Gilad Shalit have resumed.

Shalit has been held by Hamas for over four years after he was captured by the Palestinian resistance during an attack on an Israeli outpost in Gaza. Hamas have demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails in exchange for Shalit’s freedom.

The renewed negotiations are being conducted with the help of a new German mediator as well as the Egyptian intelligence, according to Haaretz. No breakthrough has been reported, but the efforts are ongoing, the daily’s website said.