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Israel - Cabinet Clash Over Settlement Freeze

Several Likud Cabinet Ministers Call On Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu To Extend Settlement Freeze In Order To Save Upcoming Israeli- Palestinian Peace Talks

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman & Some Likud Cabinet Ministers Urge Netanyahu To Honor His Promise To Immediately Renew Settlement Building After Moratorium Expires On Sept. 26th

IsraCast Assessment: If Prime Minister Decides To Extend Building Freeze Labor & Possibly Shas Would Lend Their Support Inside Government Coalition

Benyamin Netanyahu

Two dates loom large on the Middle East calendar - on Sept. 2nd, President Barack Obama is to launch a new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks while the current Israeli settlement freeze expires on Sept.26th. Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is committed to renew building after the freeze expires while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warns that if Israel does, he will walk out of the long awaited direct negotiations. The Obama administration has now weighed in by telling both sides from taking provocative actions, a veiled warning to Israel. While it is not clear what the PM will decide, his cabinet ministers are now embroiled in a heated debate on whether or not to extend the building 'suspension'. Analyst David Essing is of the view the cabinet ministers do not have the foggiest idea of what the Prime Minister will decide.

U.S. President Barack Obama himself will kick off the Israeli- Palestinian peace talks set for Washington on Sept. 2nd. But on Sept. 26th Israel's ten month moratorium on settlement building expires and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said en passant that the government's decision still stands - this is that building is to start anew after its expiry. However, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has warned that if Israel begins building again on the West Bank and east Jerusalem, he will walk out of the negotiations. The Obama administration, with the President's prestige on the line, has called on both sides not to take any provocative steps that could torpedo the peace parley. This is a clear message to Israel not to renew settlement building after Sept. 26th. It has set off a clash among cabinet ministers on whether or not to extend the settlement freeze and possibly torpedoing the peace talks as well as suffering Obama's wrath. As for Prime Minister Netanyahu, he has not declared categorically that he will restart the building after Sept.26th and he is apparently considering how to square the circle on settlement. When the settlement 'suspension' was decided last November, Netanyahu pledged to his Right wing supporters that he would restart settlement building immediately after the ten month moratorium. Residents in Judea & Samaria say expect the PM to keep his word and they are now 'revving up the tractors' and ready to go on Sept.27th.

So Netanyahu is facing a double bind: either to keep his building pledge and torpedo the Palestinian talks or to break his word and save the negotiations? Likud cabinet ministers Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan have called for an extension of the settlement freeze in order to salvage the long awaited peace talks that Netanyahu so desires. They argue that the PM is now committed to the two-state solution and it makes no sense for Israel to build in parts of Judea & Samaria that will not remain part of the Jewish state. Their compromise solution proposes seeking agreement for Israel to build only in the large 'settlement blocs' that former President George Bush said should remain part of Israel in a final agreement. (Even President Abbas recently disclosed that he had proposed such a land swap in talks with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert).

Obviously Defense Minister Ehud Barak, of Left wing Labor, opposes any new building at this time. Labor has even threatened to bolt the coalition if the freeze is not extended. On the other side of the coalition divide, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Minister Benny Begin have demanded the government renew settlement building regardless of its impact on peace talks. The outspoken Foreign Minister, who places little value on diplomatic tact, has even gone as far as to predict the new talks will not go anywhere.

President Mahmoud Abbas

What will Netanyahu do? After his recent cordial reception by Obama in the White House, the Prime Minister apparently felt the President would now turn a blind eye, if the Israeli building was not massive or provocative, (such as announcing new building plans for east Jerusalem during the official visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden). But this does not appear to be the case. Abbas, who is facing flak from Hamas, appears adamant. For its part, the U.S. exerted massive pressure on Abbas to participate in direct talks with Israel without any prior conditions, and is loath to see the current peace effort fail before it really gets started. First, the PM will have to decide whether he wants to run the risk of restarting settlement building. This against the backdrop of his own urgent appeal for face to face talks with the West Bank Palestinians. He will then have to ascertain the lay of the land inside his coalition government - there is a possibility of a Right wing coup. Members of his own Likud party could team up with Lieberman's party and other Right wing parties to force Netanyahu's hand in favor of rebuilding. However, the key lies with Shas, the ultra-orthodox Sephardi party whose all-powerful mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has ruled in the past that peace takes precedence over keeping every square inch of sacred land in Judea & Samaria.

Lawyer Mica Glass, who often acts as a spokesman for Shas has told Israel Radio, that he believes Netanyahu could reach an agreement with Shas on the settlement issue, if the PM decides to extend the building freeze. Granted this would drive many Right-wingers and settlers to man the barricades, however Netanyahu could base his decision on the greater national interest- embarking on Palestinian peace talks and no less important, not disrupting relations with Washington again. And indeed many pundits believe the PM now has his work cut out - his task is to find a 'creative solution' to prevent Israel's frenetic domestic politics from dominating the greater national interest.

David Essing

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