US President Barack Obama on Sunday welcomed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to temporarily freeze West Bank settlement building, while settlement leaders convened for an emergency debate on ways in which to fight the plan.
"I think it is promising," Obama told reporters upon arriving in the United States after a trip to Asia. "We’ve been in contact with both the Israelis and the Palestinians to make sure that we use this opportunity to start negotiating as quickly as possible on some of the final status issues that would render the settlement issue moot," he added.
"I commend Netanyahu" for making such a constructive gesture, Obama said, adding, "It's not easy for him to do, but it signals he is serious. My hope is, is that he and President Abbas start negotiations immediately."
Meanwhile, a statement released after the settlers' meeting called on the prime minister to "come back to the values of the Likud, come home to your voters and the goals for which you were elected," .
In addition, the leaders decided they would create a forum of Likud Knesset members who oppose an additional freeze, in order to debate possible steps if indeed the US-backed demand in implemented.
"This morning we learned of Netanyahu's intention to renew the construction freeze in a manner we have not see since the White Paper," said MK Danny Danon, referring to a British decree which limited the immigration of Jews to Palestine in 1939.
"The current freeze stipulates that the construction of every home in Judea and Samaria will be halted, whether the foundations have already been laid or the house is being built. This is an emergency convention of council heads in order to tell the ministers they have the power to stop this move."
The chairman of the Shomron Regional Council, Gershon Mesika, threatened to "settle accounts" with every minister who voted in favor of the freeze.
"It is morally offensive to declare ahead of time that the land is not ours and now it only remains to negotiate the terms of our withdrawal," Mesika said.
"There is also an economic problem here because instability keeps entrepreneurs and investments away. We've seen what happened in Gaza and we will not allow this nightmarish scenario to occur in central Israel."
Emergency meeting (Photo: Ido Erez)
Protestors: Shas are leftists
Mesika added that he would prefer Opposition chairwoman Tzipi Livni as prime minister. "Since he was elected our condition has worsened, even in comparison to the Olmert government. If this proposal is implemented, we will see the end of this government approaching. We would even prefer Tzipi to Netanyahu," he said.
The head of the Elkana Council, Tzadok Zehorai, said settlement was encountering "a difficult time of crisis".
"I call on all those who are loyal to the Land of Israel to raise their voices and on Minister Eli Yishai, who has proven his fidelity to settlement throughout this time, not to lend a hand to a deed which will bring disgrace on our heads," Zehorai said.
On Sunday morning Shas Chairman Eli Yishai announced that his party would not vote against an additional freeze, but rather take passive steps of its prevention, as long as construction in all areas of Jerusalem and large settlement blocs is renewed immediately.
In response, settlers' committees in Binyamin and Samaria organized a protest in front of his house in Har-Nof. Some 30 rightists attended, including Baruch Marzel, and called out slogans such as "Shas are leftists".
Border issue could break up gov't
Meanwhile, senior members of the Likud warned Sunday that a discussion on the permanent borders issue as part of peace talks with the Palestinians may break up the government. "The Americans are demanding a discussion on the borders issue and the prime minister will have to put his map on the table. Such a map could lead to a political explosion and break up the government," a government official said.
The prime minister's associates said that the US has not demanded the border issue be solved within three months as part of its agreement with Israel last week but acknowledged that there may be pressure in relation to the issue.
"Israel has not given a promise on this subject. Clearly the Palestinians will raise the borders issue. Netanyahu has repeatedly said he wishes to discuss all issues as part of negotiations and they shall be discussed, " one Netanyahu associate said.
"The prime minister can present his principles and does not have to show a map at this advanced stage of the talks," he added.
Yitzhak Benhorin and Attila Somfalvi contributed to this report
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