Israel awaits US letter outlining settlement freeze terms

JERUSALEM, Hazel Ward- Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu is awaiting written details of a US package of incentives in exchange for a new West Bank settlement freeze before convening his security cabinet, officials said on Tuesday.
The premier is currently weighing the US proposal, details of which were outlined during talks last week with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, amid opposition from hardliners in his cabinet.

Israel awaits US letter outlining settlement freeze terms
But the package came in for strong criticism from the Elders group of retired world statesmen on Tuesday. They argued it made dangerous concessions to Israel on settlements on occupied land, which the international community has always regarded as illegal.
Netanyahu has promised to put the US proposal to his 15-member security cabinet -- but only after receiving written details of the offer.
"There are understandings between the US secretary of state and the prime minister but it takes time for them to be put in writing, and we have to wait," Nir Hefetz, a senior Netanyahu adviser, told Israel's army radio.
"No date has been set for the cabinet meeting because we have to wait for the written clarifications from the Americans," he said.
Earlier this week, Netanyahu said that details of the proposal were still being hammered out, and a source close to the negotiations said the premier was "holding out" over a number of conditions.
But on Tuesday, another senior Israeli official accused the Palestinians of holding up the letter's arrival, saying their complaints about the generous US offers to Israel were the source of the delay.
"What is causing a delay in putting together the agreed formula in the US document are Palestinian objections to what Israel has managed to gain through the understandings," he said.
"Only when the guarantees document is received will the prime minister present it to the cabinet," he added.
Under the terms of the proposal, Israel would declare a one-off three-month moratorium on new construction in the West Bank excluding annexed Arab east Jerusalem.
In exchange, the United States would pledge not to ask for a further freeze, would deliver to Israel 20 F-35 fighter jets, worth three billion dollars, and would pledge to block any international efforts to force a political settlement on Israel.
Palestinian officials said earlier this week they had not been officially notified of details of the US proposal, although president Mahmud Abbas will on Wednesday hold talks on the issue with a senior US official.
Commentators on the privately owned Channel 10 television suggested Israel was citing "Palestinian objections" in a bid to enhance the appeal of the US offer and thereby soften opposition to it in the security cabinet.
The security cabinet is divided on whether to approve a new freeze, but Netanyahu is expected to secure a wafer-thin majority of seven ministers in favour, six opposed and two abstentions.
The Elders, who visited the region last month, described the US incentives for Israel to impose short-term restrictions on settlement activity as "desperate and wrong".
"This news breaks my heart. What is Washington thinking?" said the group's chairman, Desmond Tutu.
"Settlements are illegal ... The resumption of direct talks cannot be based on one side negotiating its way out of an important question of international law."
Former Irish president Mary Robinson said: "This effort to do a short-term deal on settlements to restart direct talks is desperate and wrong.
"It betrays international law and the entire family of nations -- not to mention the Palestinians."
Direct peace talks launched by the White House at the start of September ground to a halt just three weeks later when a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction ended.
Abbas has insisted he will not return to direct talks without Israel imposing a new freeze, prompting frenzied US efforts to broker a compromise.

Wednesday, November 17th 2010
Hazel Ward

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