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Israel set to OK 90-day halt to settlements

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Israel neared approval of a U.S.-backed settlement freeze, seen as key to the resumption of stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked to have secured the votes late Wednesday necessary to pass it through his 15-member security Cabinet.

"The prime minister will, with great determination, bring it before the Cabinet for a positive decision," Mr. Netanyahu's office said in a statement, with Israeli media reporting that the vote would take place Thursday.

Under the American proposal, the outlines of which were hammered out during a meeting last Thursday between Mr. Netanyahu and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Israel would freeze settlement activity in the West Bank - though not in East Jerusalem - for 90 days in return for an American basket of security and diplomatic guarantees.

Those guarantees include the sale of 20 F-35 jets worth $3 billion, a pledge to veto Palestinian efforts to gain statehood recognition through the United Nations for at least a year, and assurances that the Obama administration would not press Mr. Netanyahu for a further settlement moratorium.

With Mr. Netanyahu's 15-member security cabinet closely split on the U.S. proposal, with seven ministers in favor and six against, passage had hinged on the abstention of two ministers with whom Mr. Netanyahu met Wednesday.

The ministers, both members of the conservative religious party Shas, had conditioned their acquiescence to the freeze on promises from Mr. Netanyahu that it would not cover East Jerusalem and that extensive construction of Jewish neighborhoods would continue in that disputed part of the city.

The Palestinians suspended their participation in this latest round of direct talks on Sept. 26, following the expiration of the initial ten-month moratorium that Mr. Netanyahu had imposed to satisfy the Obama administration. They have said they will not rejoin the talks unless Israel renews it, though they have sounded ambiguous notes about whether they would acquiesce to another Jerusalem-less moratorium.

Palestinians have long said that they would not accept a state without its capital in the eastern half of Jerusalem.

Though previous Israeli prime ministers had agreed to divide the city during negotiations with the Palestinians, Mr. Netanyahu has long opposed the idea and sparred with the Obama administration over construction in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

Aaron David Miller, an adviser on the Arab-Israeli conflict to six former secretaries of state, called the U.S. gambit "the best of very bad alternatives," emphasizing the drawbacks of the other choices - walking away from the negotiations or trying to impose an American plan on the two parties.

"All [the administration] can do is continue on the road that the president began to travel when he made settlements, which was absolutely the wrong focus, the major fulcrum of his policy, and that is to induce the Israelis to [freeze settlements] by offering them all kinds of goodies with the expectation that in the next several months enough progress can be made to give both sides a stake in continuing," he said. "This is all about buying time to correct a strategy which had no chance of working."

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat pushed back Wednesday against suggestions that Palestinians were seeking to sabotage the U.S.-Israeli understandings, calling them "just part of the regular Israeli machinations in the blame game."

"The Israelis know our position," Mr. Erekat said, explaining that talks over borders and security will come first and that all other issues "will be dealt with after 90 days."

Ghaith al-Omari, advocacy director at the American Task Force on Palestine and a former Palestinian negotiator, said "the whole idea of having a three-month moratorium is to create enough progress to justify for the Palestinians to continue after that."

"The challenge now," he said, "is how to structure the talks in a way that it will produce some breakthrough on some issues - most likely borders - by the end of the three months."

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About the Author

Ben Birnbaum

Ben Birnbaum is a reporter covering foreign affairs for The Washington Times. Prior to joining The Times, Birnbaum worked as a reporter-researcher at the New Republic. A Boston-area native, he graduated magna cum laude from Cornell University with a degree in government and psychology. He won multiple collegiate journalism awards for his articles and columns in the Cornell Daily Sun.

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