Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have demanded conditions the Palestinians are unable to meet, but he has agreed to the principle of a continued settlement construction freeze. Following his Knesset speech, government sources close to the prime minister said Monday the proposal he presented was not his final offer, and discussions are now underway regarding what must be received in return. Meanwhile the US on Monday again reiterated its expectation of a continued moratorium.
Despite the confusion in the government regarding Netanyahu's declaration that he is ready to extend the freeze in exchange for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, sources emphasized this was "not an attempt to put an end to negotiations or cause the talks to break down." This deal, they said, was tabled a month ago and rejected by the Palestinians, but "alternative formulations" are being sought.
"If the Palestinian leadership says unequivocally to its people that it recognizes Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, I am willing to convene my government and request a moratorium on construction for a further limited period," Netanyahu said to the Knesset plenum opening the winter session.
"The prime minister's words leave an open door for reaching an agreement around a freeze, while at the same time he tries to win points regarding Israel's character as a Jewish state," a senior minister close to Netanyahu said Monday evening. "The freeze is still on the table."
The forum of the top seven ministers is expected to convene Tuesday, though it is not yet clear whether this issue will be on the agenda. The prime minister met Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in the Knesset on Monday, while on Thursday he is expected to meet Opposition Chairperson Tzipi Livni.
Freeze 'with significant US agreements'
It was in fact from the right side of the political spectrum that Netanyahu received support. Shas leader MK Eli Yishai said to Ynet in a special broadcast from the Knesset that his party would not quit the government even if there is an additional freeze – "so that Kadima won't get in (the government) and cause an even deeper freeze." Already in August, Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said he would not oppose a continued freeze for a limited period.
However, it is still not clear whether Netanyahu will be able to muster a majority in favor of extending the freeze – even with Shas on board, Yisrael Beitenu and Habayit Hayehudi are still opposed. Some senior Likud ministers will back Netanyahu in return for "significant agreements with the US."
The prime minister let slip another hint during the Likud faction meeting Monday, when he asserted there were "other important interests apart from building in the settlements" – words that riled the rightwing members of the party.
Netanyahu is also under pressure from the left, including from Labor's Ehud Barak. The party discussed the talks on Monday and their chances of success, and Barak reiterated his position, saying things would be clearer by April, when Labor's position in the government would also be made clear.
Labor ministers emphasize that if there is no progress in the political progress, there is no point them being in the government.
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