- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Israel’s opposition leader and a former prime minister criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday for not agreeing to a U.S.-proposed two-month extension of a West Bank settlement freeze, whose expiration has threatened to sink renewed Mideast peace talks.

“Israel’s relationship with the U.S. is critical to its security,” said Tzipi Livni, head of the centrist Kadima Party. “Anyone who, for political reasons, hopes to weaken the U.S. president does not understand what consequences that may have for Israel.”

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who served from 2006 to 2009, also took aim at his succesor’s handling of relations with President Obama, saying, “He is the president of the country with which we have signed an agreement to receive advanced fighter aircraft and which provides us a grant of billions of dollars annually.”

The U.S. reportedly has asked Mr. Netanyahu for a two-month extension to the 10-month settlement freeze, which ended Sept. 26, in return for a series of diplomatic and security guarantees. The Palestinians have said they will bolt direct talks if the moratorium is not continued.

Mr. Netanyahu has support in his government for an extension from the center-left Labor Party and from more centrist elements of his center-right Likud Party, but he faces adamant opposition from the conservative parties that make up the balance of his coalition.

In a speech before the Knesset on Monday, he floated the possibility of extending the freeze in return for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people — a condition the Palestinians have rejected.

In response to the salvos from Mr. Olmert and Ms. Livni, who previously served as foreign minister, Likud returned fire in a statement saying that their words would lead one to believe that “Israel was in heaven under the Kadima government.”

Also Tuesday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, head of the Labor Party, issued a personal plea to Ms. Livni and Mr. Netanyahu to facilitate Kadima’s entry into his coalition, saying that if diplomatic progress requires the prime minister “to widen the base of the government at this time, then this is the moment to do so.”

But Kadima, in its own statement, said it “plans to replace” the current coalition, not join it.

While Kadima has one more seat than Likud in the current Knesset, the right-left balance among the other parties makes it highly unlikely that Ms. Livni could topple Mr. Netanyahu. Even if Labor were to desert the coalition, as many of its leading figures repeatedly have threatened, Mr. Netanyahu still would control a narrow majority with just Likud and its conservative coalition partners.

Aaron David Miller, a former senior adviser on the Arab-Israeli conflict to six secretaries of state, said the proposed two-month freeze, coupled with the administration’s promise not to request further extensions, was “designed to start a clock ticking which would allow an agreement to be reached on borders within sixty days.”

But he noted that the only deal acceptable to the Palestinians — pre-1967 boundaries with one-to-one land swaps — would be a non-starter in Israel “unless Netanyahu is prepared to reconstitute his coalition.”

“The real question is what Netanyahu’s up to,” Mr. Miller said, pointing to three recent developments — Mr. Netanyahu’s freeze-for-recognition offer and his acquiescence to two controversial right-wing bills.

“Are these coordinated efforts by Netanyahu to secure his right wing so that he can make this concession on the moratorium in the next week or two,” he said, “or is a moratorium simply not possible any longer?”

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