Thursday, August 26, 2010

Inner Cabinet debates alternatives to settlement freeze ending next month

(AFP, Haaretz).Israel's premier and his top ministers are mulling alternatives to the settlement freeze Palestinians are seeking as the two sides prepare to launch a new round of talks next week, media reported on Thursday.

One proposal finding favour is to allow construction in the main settlement blocs Israel intends to annex as part of any peace deal while imposing a "mini freeze" in isolated West Bank settlements, Israeli newspapers reported.

The idea would be to keep the restrictions quiet in order to minimise chances of a public uproar among rightwing Israelis.

"On the one hand, (the prime minister) is interested in showing the Americans an alternative that does not involve massive construction in the territories; on the other, Netanyahu wants to do so without having to declare a construction freeze publicly," the Yediot Aharonot daily said.

A senior minister who belongs to the forum of seven, an informal inner cabinet with which Netanyahu consults on important matters, said yesterday it is likely that the cabinet will ultimately adopt the compromise put forth by Dan Meridor. The deputy prime minister has proposed that Israel resume construction in settlement blocs and areas close to the separation fence come September, but extend the freeze in areas that are unlikely to remain under Israeli control after a peace deal is reached, such as isolated settlements.

A number of ministers said yesterday that the government is likely to adopt this idea and were confident that it would not undermine the coalition or lead to a crisis.

However, while some ministers have made it clear that they will oppose any deal that would undermine settlement construction, others expressed opinions that may serve as the basis of understandings with the Palestinians.

Shas is expected to strongly oppose any freeze in construction, but Yisrael Beiteinu, which is considered more right-wing, is expected to put forth more moderate views.

Ministers said yesterday that if the Yisrael Beiteinu chairman, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, sticks to his current policy and does not leave the coalition, Shas will also stay in the government.

Lieberman has presented his own compromise formula regarding the settlement freeze, which is scheduled to end September 26. He said construction should resume in the settlement blocs and that any building in other settlements would be permitted only to meet "natural growth."

"This has been a formula that has always been acceptable, even to the previous administration," he said yesterday. "People living outside the settlement blocs must not be punished. A settlement like Tekoa, established under Labor, has a new kindergarten class every year. Will we punish those children and their parents because the Labor government convinced them back then to perform a Zionist act?"

But the proposal, taken up by the the forum of seven top ministers in recent days, is unlikely to impress the Palestinians who are seeking a complete halt to settlement construction in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem.