U.S.: Renew building freeze
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WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is trying to cajole the Israeli government into a 60-day renewal of the freeze on Jewish settlement building by offering it security guarantees, ranging from military hardware to support for a long-term Israeli presence in the strategically sensitive Jordan Valley, according to lawmakers and other officials briefed on the proposals.
But with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu so far resisting the administration's entreaties, the United States is also weighing a fallback plan, officials said, that could involve reaching out to the Palestinians with a pledge to formally endorse one of their central demands for the borders of a future Palestinian state.
The U.S. proposals to Israel came amid a frenzy of diplomatic horse-trading, with the administration maneuvering furiously to keep the talks alive while Mr. Netanyahu appeared to be trying to extract a high price for acquiescing on settlements. The Palestinians have threatened to walk away from the talks if Israel does not renew its freeze on construction, a concession that Mr. Netanyahu has ruled out.
Adding to the pressure is a Cairo meeting next week of the Arab League, at which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has promised to deliver a speech in which he will "declare historical decisions." That sparked rumors that he might threaten to resign, which he has done before.
For now, the administration's focus remains on Mr. Netanyahu, whom U.S. officials hope they can persuade to renew the freeze, with the understanding that Washington will ask for no further extensions. The administration's special envoy to the region, former Maine Democratic Sen. George J. Mitchell, met Wednesday with Mr. Netanyahu and plans to meet him again before seeing Mr. Abbas today.
Details of the U.S. offer were first reported in the Israeli media and widely disseminated in Washington in an essay by David Makovsky, a well-connected Middle East analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The White House denied Thursday that President Barack Obama had sent a letter with proposals to Mr. Netanyahu. It declined to comment further on the negotiations.
But Wednesday, the White House's senior Middle East advisers, Dennis B. Ross and Daniel B. Shapiro, briefed Capitol Hill Democrats about what Mr. Ross described as a "string of assurances in return for a two-month moratorium," according to people in the meeting.
These would include additional military equipment -- missile systems, aircraft and satellites -- a pledge to help Israel enforce a ban on weapons smuggling through a Palestinian state and a promise to help forge a regional security agreement to defend Israel against the threat posed by Iran.
Mr. Netanyahu has brushed aside these offers, officials said. For him, said an Israeli official, the political necessity of standing firm on settlements outweighs any U.S.-offered security incentives. "These are wonderful proposals, but because of the political realities, we can't even have this discussion," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the talks' delicacy. "It's a question of what else can be offered."
Mr. Netanyahu has broached the possibility that the United States release Jonathan Jay Pollard, a civilian intelligence analyst who pleaded guilty to spying for Israel in 1986 and was sentenced to life in prison. Mr. Pollard is a heroic figure in the settlements; winning his release would be a coup for Mr. Netanyahu and could allow him to justify extending the freeze.
But former President Bill Clinton rejected Mr. Netanyahu's request to release Mr. Pollard in 1998, when the prime minister used it as a bargaining chip during previous peace talks. There is little evidence that Mr. Obama would do any different.
First Published October 1, 2010 12:00 am