Israeli PM races to bolster support for peace deal

By Josef Federman

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 17 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday he was close to reaching an understanding with the U.S. that would allow him to present a proposal for restarting stalled peace talks to his Cabinet, capping weeks of painstaking American efforts to get negotiations back on track.

Facing rising opposition to the deal within his governing coalition, Netanyahu vowed to push hard for approval from his government. Officials said a vote could take place as soon as Thursday.

The U.S. has proposed a 90-day slowdown on West Bank settlement construction to help bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table and in exchange offered a package of incentives to Israel.

Netanyahu has signaled he is ready to comply, but is seeking written assurances from the Americans that he will not have to extend the settlement freeze after the three months are up.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declined to comment Wednesday on the demand for a written guarantee, saying only that efforts to revive the peace talks were continuing.

"We are working intensively to create the conditions for the resumption of negotiations that can lead to a two-state solution and a comprehensive peace," she said during a joint news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague in Washington.

Netanyahu's office issued a statement late Wednesday saying he "hopes to conclude contacts with the U.S. soon" in order to bring present the deal to his 15-member Security Cabinet — a group of senior government ministers split between pragmatists and hard-liners.

"The prime minister will, with great determination, bring it before the Cabinet for a positive decision" the statement said.

Officials close to Netanyahu said he would convene his cabinet in the next 24 hours to approve the deal. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

In a potential boost for Netanyahu, representatives from the ultra-Orthodox religious party Shas said Wednesday they would abstain in a Cabinet vote — but only if it explicitly excluded Jerusalem. Abstentions from the party's two Cabinet would allow it to succeed; opposing it would mean defeat.

A growing number of pro-settler lawmakers in the hard-line government oppose the deal. Fourteen members of Netanyahu's Likud Party, more than half of the party's parliamentary delegation, sent a letter to the prime minister Wednesday urging him not to approve the agreement.

U.S.-backed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in late September, just weeks after they were launched, following the expiration of a 10-month Israeli slowdown on settlement construction.

The Palestinians say they cannot negotiate while Israel continues to build homes for Jews in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — captured lands that the Palestinians claim for a future independent state.

Seeking to break the impasse, the U.S. has proposed that Israel reinstate the building restrictions, while promising key military and diplomatic support. Israeli officials say the deal would include delivery of 20 next-generation stealth fighter planes and U.S. pledges to veto anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations.

During the 90-day freeze period, Israel and the Palestinians would try to work out a deal on their future borders. With a border determined, Israel could then resume building on any territories it expects to keep under a future peace deal.

Netanyahu worked out the contours of the deal during a marathon meeting last week in New York with Clinton. But since announcing its details over the weekend, he has faced mounting opposition inside his hard-line government.

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