Washington frowns on Netanyahu’s settlement freeze maneuvers but remains flexible
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu drew a fast rebuke from Washington for his move to blunt vocal criticism from his pro-settlement Likud party by promising to approve hundreds of new homes on the West Bank ahead of a deal with Washington on a temporary construction moratorium.
He is therefore maneuvering between Likud pressure and Washington, with US Middle East George Mitchell arriving in Jerusalem next week to clinch the deal for an Israeli settlement freeze, which US President Obama wants to unveil before the UN General Assembly later this month.
Friday night, Sept. 4, a White House statement “regretted” Netanyahu’s maneuver to pacify his party as “making it harder to create a climate for peace negotiations.” But, said the White House, Washington will continue to discuss Israel’s intent to place limits on settlement activity “as these limitations are defined.”
Those limitations, as debkafile disclosed on Aug. 30, are based roughly on an 80 percent of the settlement issues on which the US and Israel concur and 20 percent on which they agree to disagree.
This formula was carried forward in the talks in Washington this week between Mitchell and Netanyahu’s advisers Yitzhak Molcho and Brig. Mike Herzog.
The understandings reached by Washington and Jerusalem – as seen in the US capital are, according to debkafile‘s sources, are as follows:
1. Israel will announce a moratorium on settlement construction lasting several months. The exact period will be determined when Mitchell meets Netanyahu.
2. The US accepts that even during this freeze, the construction of 2,500 housing units started in 700 buildings and public facilities cannot be stopped.
3. The US abides by its objections to Jewish construction in Jerusalem but will not make a public issue of it, assigning it to the 20 percent of non-consensual items.
4. President Obama will continue to publicly object to all settlement expansion but in practical terms, he has waived his ultimatum on a total freeze.
5. He will seek Arab confidence-building gestures for Israel although, even if any materialize, which is doubtful, they will be pretty trivial.
6. A trilateral summit will take place at the UN general assembly between Obama, Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, at which they will solemnly announce the resuscitation of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks although neither party abandons its positions.
The US-Israeli understandings as perceived in Jerusalem are reported by debkafile as consisting of the following points:
– Jewish construction in Jerusalem will continue, thereby confirming prime minister Netanyahu’s role as the guardian of Jewish and Israeli rights in their ancestral, reunified capital.
– The West Bank settlement moratorium will not extend beyond nine months.
– Until it is signed and sealed, Israel will take the opportunity to approve more construction. Therefore, early next week, the Netanyahu government intends to sign permits for the construction of several hundred new homes in West Bank settlements. The prime minister will explain to Mitchell that, the licensing process and other preparations will preclude the start of actual building before the expiry of the temporary freeze.
Israel hopes the Obama administration accepts this explanation and includes the extra housing units in the 20 percent of unresolved issues.
Our political sources report that in both interpretations of the US-Israel draft understanding it is clear that Netanyahu has managed to wear down Obama’s insistence on a total settlement construction freeze forthwith.
One-fifth of subjects related to this issue are still up in the air, leaving Washington remains at liberty to challenge Israeli actions in this ambivalent sphere and argue that it has exploited the uncertainty to grab another 15 percent over and above the agreed 20 percent.