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.
Israeli officials said Netanyahu is seeking written assurances from the Americans that he will not have to extend the freeze after the 90-day period ends. They said Israel also wants it to be clear that east Jerusalem — claimed by both sides — be exempt from the building restrictions.
A U.S. envoy, David Hale, briefed Palestinian officials in the West Bank Wednesday. Palestinian officials have expressed concern about the generous terms to the Israelis — and the possibility of east Jerusalem being exempt from the building restrictions.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Hale had told them there was still no agreement on the U.S. proposal. "We said we will not give any reaction before we see it officially," Erekat said.
The Palestinians are divided between two rival governments, the Western-backed Palestinian Authority that is pursuing a peace agreement with Israel, and the Islamic militant Hamas regime that rules the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians claim both areas, located on opposite sides of Israel, for a future state and will need to resolve their split to establish their country.
An Israeli airstrike ripped through a car in Gaza City on Wednesday, killing two militants accused of helping kidnap a British Broadcasting Corp. journalist in March 2007, officials said.
The men, Islam and Mohammed Yasin, are related and belonged to the Army of Islam, said a Gaza official who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter. The shadowy extremist Muslim group draws inspiration from al-Qaida, though it is not believed to have operational links.Comment on this story
Israel has killed dozens of wanted Palestinian militants — and a number of bystanders — in airstrikes over the years. But Israel has greatly scaled back its operations since a fierce military offensive in early 2009.
BBC reporter Alan Johnston was released about four months after his abduction in Gaza.
The Army of Islam was also involved in the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006. Schalit remains in captivity in Gaza.
An Israeli military spokesman, who requested anonymity in line with military guidelines, said Islam Yasin was involved in plans to kidnap Israelis in the Egyptian Sinai, a popular holiday spot.
Ibrahim Barzak in the Gaza Strip contributed to this report.