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EXCLUSIVE: Israel makes secret offer on settlements

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 22, 2009

EXCLUSIVE:

Ahead of the Obama administration's first U.S.-Palestinian-Israeli summit, Israel has agreed to a partial freeze of settlement construction for six to nine months but still wants to build more than 2,500 new housing units, said Israeli officials and an Israeli specialist familiar with the country's evolving policy.

The private Israeli position, which was described by these three individuals on the condition that they not be named, is at odds with the public stance Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken before the meeting Tuesday with President Obama and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in New York. The prime minister's media adviser, Nir Hefetz, told Israeli radio Monday that Mr. Netanyahu would not support a settlement freeze, because he considers the settlements to be a "Zionist enterprise."

The issue of settlements has roiled U.S.-Israel relations. President Obama is demanding that Israel suspend construction on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem as part of a plan to restart negotiations and encourage Arab states to begin the process of recognizing the Jewish state.

What the Israelis are offering is still shy of Mr. Obama's demands. The two Israeli officials and the Israel specialist said Mr. Netanyahu wants to move forward with 2,500 to 3,000 housing units already approved and to exempt East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians foresee as a future capital, from the freeze. The U.S. also sought a yearlong freeze, while Mr. Netanyahu is offering six to nine months, the Israelis said.

Given the gaps, Israeli and American officials have downplayed expectations for the summit at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel and have said they do not expect any agreement to be announced.

Mr. Obama will meet first with Mr. Netanyahu, then with Mr. Abbas and then all three together.

Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, Mr. Obama's envoy on the Arab-Israeli conflict, has been shuttling for months to try to choreograph simultaneous concessions by both sides.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition that he not be named because the negotiations are continuing, said Mr. Mitchell has received private assurances from some Gulf Arab and North African states to grant over-flight rights to Israeli jets, open interest sections in Israel and end a travel ban against Israelis if Israel freezes settlement construction. Saudi Arabia, guardian of Islam's holiest sites, has not agreed to these steps absent a peace agreement.

"Thus far, the Arabs have stiffed Obama and the Israelis in their own exquisite way are stiffing him," said Aaron David Miller, a former senior Middle East adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state. "He is not getting a comprehensive settlement freeze. In fact, over the next 18 months, it may look like a construction boom; 2,500 to 3,000 new units is a lot of construction and to boot the Israelis will never agree to anything on Jerusalem."

Mr. Miller, however, also acknowledged that no American president has gotten the Israelis to agree on any kind of settlement freeze.

Israel says it got an oral agreement from the George W. Bush administration allowing it so-called natural growth: construction within settlement blocs Israel expects to retain even after a peace agreement. However, the agreement was never implemented with a formal survey of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

"The problem with the Obama administration policy is not the man, Obama or Mitchell; it's the mandate," Mr. Miller said. "It should be clear to all but the eternally obtuse that a conflict-ending agreement between Benjamin Netanyahu and a divided Palestinian national movement is probably out of reach. The question then becomes what is the connection between trying to get the Arabs to do partial steps for normalization and the Israelis to do a partial settlement freeze and the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement?"

Mr. Abbas has refused to participate in formal negotiations with Israel without a firm settlement freeze that includes East Jerusalem.

Soufian Abu Zaideh, a spokesman for Mr. Abbas's Fatah party, told Israel Radio, "I don't think Abbas wanted this summit as long as there isn't a public declaration of a freeze in settlement building, as a signal of real desire to reach a peace agreement."

Mr. Abu Zaideh, added, however, that Mr. Abbas "didn't want to say no to the president. The Palestinians have no expectations from the meeting. I think this meeting is for protocol. It has no political meaning. There's no achievement."

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, said it was important for Mr. Abbas to agree to the meeting even without the freeze.

"It was important for the Palestinians, in spite of the domestic cost of attending without a settlement freeze, not to weaken Obama's hand in dealing with Netanyahu," Mr. Ibish said.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that the Palestinian leader should not set preconditions "that no government of Israel could agree to, including treating construction in East Jerusalem as a settlement and rescinding existing approvals for construction." Mr. Hoenlein said this reflected Mr. "Abbas' weaknesses, internally and externally."

Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser to Mr. Bush, said Mr. Obama's diplomacy has backfired.

"The Obama administration's approach has done precisely the opposite of what they intended, because I believe they intended to weaken Prime Minister Netanyahu and strengthen President Abbas," he said. "But in fact polls make it clear that Netanyahu is stronger now than he was on the day he took office. And the administration has put President Abbas in a very unhappy corner."