U.S. Presses Israel for Jerusalem Building Freeze, in Exchange for Direct Talks With P.A.

By Barak Ravid (Haaretz)

Published March 30, 2010.
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One of the U.S. administration’s requests to Israel regarding the peace process with the Palestinians is a four-month construction freeze in all parts of East Jerusalem. In exchange, the United States would pressure Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to hold direct talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instead of the indirect talks already agreed to by the Palestinians.

An official in Jerusalem said the Obama administration is demanding that Israel freeze construction in East Jerusalem, including Jewish neighborhoods such as Neveh Yaakov, French Hill and Ramat Shlomo, where the announcement of new construction of 1,600 residential units sparked the recent tensions between the two countries.

The freeze would last four months, the time frame the Arab League has authorized for indirect talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

In a briefing on March 29, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the issue of Jerusalem is one that will be resolved in the final-status talks between Israel and the P.A.

The U.S. administration seeks to take advantage of the recent tensions with Israel to alter the preconditions for starting talks between Israel and the P.A. — replacing proximity talks with Israel’s preference for direct talks.

Abbas was consistent in his refusal to hold direct talks with Israel as long as it failed to completely freeze settlement activity, including in East Jerusalem.

The Americans say that if Netanyahu agrees to freeze construction for four months, direct

talks will be possible between the two sides during that period.

In discussions of the forum of seven senior cabinet ministers, the general view is that it will be impossible to publicly announce a freeze of construction in East Jerusalem. However, one possibility is that it will be possible to reach a tacit agreement with the U.S. administration on construction in East Jerusalem.

Under such a tacit agreement, Israel would make it clear to the United States that during the coming four months no massive construction in East Jerusalem neighborhoods would be planned or carried out, enabling Israel to be seen as meeting the American and Palestinian demands.

During the forum of seven’s discussions, Avigdor Lieberman, Moshe Ya’alon, Benny Begin and Eli Yishai took a more hawkish view of the situation, while Ehud Barak and Dan Meridor recommended that a “creative solution” be found. This solution would offer the administration a “yes, but…” answer, through which Israel would express a number of reservations, with an emphasis on a construction freeze in East Jerusalem.

In an interview with Haaretz in December, Abbas hinted that he could be persuaded to accept a “silent freeze” of construction in East Jerusalem. Abbas said he had proposed in a conversation with Defense Minister Barak that Israel freeze construction in East Jerusalem for six months without announcing it.

At the current stage, no further meetings of the forum of seven are scheduled during the Passover holiday. It is unclear whether such meetings will be scheduled in the future, especially because Netanyahu’s two advisers busy with this issue — Yitzhak Molcho and Ron Dermer — are scheduled to hold meetings in Washington. The Prime Minister’s Bureau declined to comment.

Haaretz reported on March 29 that the U.S. administration had further demands regarding East Jerusalem, including the reopening of a Palestinian commercial office there, as well as an end to both the razing of Palestinian homes and the evacuation of Palestinians from their homes.






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