Under pressure from the Obama administration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began nudging his Cabinet on Sunday toward accepting a multibillion-dollar package of U.S. incentives to restart peace talks with Palestinians.
But Netanyahu immediately faced strong opposition from conservative politicians and Jewish settler groups, who vowed to block the American proposal because it would reimpose building restrictions in the West Bank for three months.
U.S. officials hope to use the three-month window to focus talks on setting final borders for a proposed Palestinian state. Once both sides agree to borders, Israel could resume building in areas that will become part of Israel and halt construction in areas that will become part of the Palestinian state.
After a confrontational Cabinet meeting, Moshe Yaalon, a vice prime minister, rejected the U.S. offer as a “honey trap” that “will lead us down a slippery slope and into another crisis with the American administration after three months, or perhaps even sooner.”
Netanyahu told ministers that the terms of the U.S. offer were still being negotiated and he pledged to bring it for a vote before the smaller security Cabinet when the details are finalized.
The package, discussed last week between Netanyahu and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York, includes 20 stealth fighter jets worth $3 billion and a promise to veto anti-Israel proposals raised in the U.N. Security Council during the next year, including a potential Palestinian bid to seek international support for a unilateral declaration of statehood.
In return, Israel would renew its partial West Bank construction moratorium for 90 days, including units that broke ground after the previous freeze expired in September. Peace Now, an anti-settlement group that tracks construction in the occupied territories, said settlers have resumed construction on 1,650 units in the last six weeks.
Israel’s refusal to extend the building restrictions led Palestinians to suspend their participation in U.S.-brokered peace talks.
As was the case with Israel’s previous partial freeze, construction in East Jerusalem would not be restricted under the new proposal, even though the U.S. continues to oppose such building.
Netanyahu outlined the proposal at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, but no vote was taken. It remains unclear whether the prime minister has enough votes to get it passed.
“The prime minister wants to reach an agreement with the U.S.,” said one official close to Netanyahu. “If he’s happy with the final details, he’ll do his best to convince the members of the security Cabinet to approve it.”
Analysts said it remained unclear whether the prime minister was fully committed to the plan.
“The million-dollar question here is what is going on inside Netanyahu’s head, and no one has a good answer,” said Shlomo Brom, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies. “On one hand, everyone says he has crossed the Rubicon and genuinely wants negotiations. On the other hand, he appears to waste time in order to preserve his government.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a key coalition partner, voiced opposition to the U.S. offer in private meetings, according to Israeli news reports. Lieberman and others oppose setting final borders before addressing other issues, such as security or the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
“We will not agree to focus on the subject of the border,” Lieberman was quoted as saying by Israel Today newspaper. “That would be a bitter mistake.”
But Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who had voiced opposition to renewing the building moratorium, indicated Sunday that his Shas Party might agree to abstain from the vote if Jewish building in East Jerusalem could continue unabated.
Palestinian officials said they had not been briefed on the plan by U.S. officials and would refrain from making a judgment until then. But some expressed concern that the building restrictions would not cover East Jerusalem, which Israel seized in 1967 and where it recently announced the approval of 1,300 new units.