Israelis debate swapping settlements freeze for U.S. jets

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 15, 2010 

JERUSALEM — Israeli defense officials urged the government Monday to accept a new U.S.-drafted deal to freeze Jewish settlement building temporarily in exchange for a $3 billion military package, including a U.S. gift of 20 F-35 stealth fighter jets.

But leading ministers in the Israeli Cabinet poured cold water on the proposal, and if it passes next Sunday, it will be with a razor-thin majority.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have praised the Israeli government for accepting the compromise, though Israel has yet to issue an official response to the deal.

"This is a very promising development and a serious effort by Israeli Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu," Clinton said Monday. "We are going to continue to do everything we possibly can to get the parties to begin the kind of serious, end-game negotiations that are necessary."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the money for the 20 stealth fighters "will come from the American administration, not from us."

Israel already receives $3 billion in annual aid from the United States, much of which is spent on military equipment. Israel already had ordered 20 of the jets, which are capable of traveling long distances undetected by radar. Israeli news media suggested that the jets could be used on a stealth mission, such as an attack on Iran's alleged nuclear weapons.

The deal also requires the United States to support Israel's position at the United Nations, and, according to Israeli news reports, to block recognition of any unilateral Palestinian move to declare independence.

In exchange, Israel would halt construction of Jewish settlements for 90 days, excluding East Jerusalem, enabling it to continue to build in a place that Palestinians hope will be the capital of a new Palestinian state.

Three former army chiefs of staff endorsed the U.S. proposal as an imperative step with military advantages that Israel couldn't afford to reject.

However, members of Netanyahu's Likud Party joined other coalition members from the right-wing Shas and Israeli Beitenu parties to assault the deal. Some of the parties in Netanyahu's right-wing coalition vowed to fight any deal that would limit settlement construction.

Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon rejected the deal as a "honey trap," while other lawmakers said they'd work to dismantle the government if the proposal were approved.

White House officials have struggled for months to reach a compromise that would push peace talks forward.

Palestinian leaders have refused to take part in the U.S.-sponsored talks unless Israel freezes all construction for Jewish settlers in the West Bank, on land the Palestinians said was earmarked for their future state.

Israeli officials have said that previous freezes did little to advance the talks and have accused the Palestinians of setting preconditions.

Palestinians have said that they haven't yet seen the deal, and that they'll issue a response once an official proposal is in their hands. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat expressed alarm, however, that the proposal didn't include construction in East Jerusalem.

Erekat also questioned whether the deal would allow ongoing construction to continue. Since Israel's last settlement freeze expired Sept. 26, it's begun building at least 800 housing units, according to the anti-settlement organization Peace Now.

"We have a lot of questions over how serious this proposal is, and what will happen after the 90 days end. We need to see a real change in Israeli settlement policy, not a quick fix," said a Palestinian Authority official in Ramallah, West Bank, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because the Palestinian government wasn't yet officially considering the proposal.

"The Palestinian people have tired of the peace talks that go nowhere. We have prepared other options, like with the U.N., that we can now pursue," he added.

Palestinian officials have said they'd take their case to the U.N. if peace talks failed, and could ask the U.N. to approve independent Palestinian statehood irrespective of the Israeli position.

Netanyahu must take the deal to his Cabinet for approval, which he's expected to win by a majority of one vote.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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