Israel Weighs U.S.-Backed Settlement Freeze

The Israeli Cabinet is considering a U.S. offer of incentives aimed at reviving Mideast peace talks. The Obama administration has offered military hardware and political backing in exchange for a new 90-day moratorium on Israeli settlement building in the West Bank. There has been no formal Palestinian reaction to the plan as yet. Analysts say the major question will be what happens at the end of the 90-day period. The U.S. has told Israel it will not push for another extension beyond that date.

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is making a gamble on Middle East peace efforts. After a long meeting last week with the Israeli prime minister, she's hoping Israel will freeze settlement construction for 90 days, making time for negotiations on other core issues.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton has kept relatively quiet about her seven-hour long meeting last week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But today she said she was encouraged that his cabinet is now considering a 90-day building freeze in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Secretary HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (State Department): This is a very promising development and a serious effort by Prime Minister Netanyahu.

KELEMEN: She wouldn't say what sort of incentives she offered him in exchange. Israeli officials say the package includes $3 billion in fighter jets, continued diplomat cover at the United Nations and a promise that the U.S. won't ask Israel to renew the settlement moratorium again three months from now. Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Aaron David Miller says it's a high price to pay but may be worth it.

Mr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center): This at least allows the administration to shift the focus of their efforts from settlements, which is a battle they cannot win, to the substantive negotiations where they must win if they want an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. And after 20 months, we don't have a comprehensive settlement freeze. We don't have serious negotiations and we're nowhere near an agreement.

KELEMEN: Miller, who has advised past secretaries of state on the Middle East, says the U.S. is now in a high wire act, hoping that if Israelis and Palestinians do start talking again, they will be more invested in talks when the next crisis hits.

Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group has his doubts and is troubled by the apparent U.S. assurances that it won't push the settlement issue beyond the 90-day moratorium.

Mr. ROB MALLEY (International Crisis Group): That's risky because it could put us on record as in a way acquiescing in settlement construction, which we've never done. It also in some way will, you know, lessen the pressure on Israel to reach a deal if they know that after 90 days they won't be entering into another confrontation with the United States over the issue of settlements. And, plus, it excludes Jerusalem from the scope of the settlement moratorium.

KELEMEN: Palestinians have already objected to the fact that the housing slowdown would not cover the part of Jerusalem that they hope will be their future capital. Still, Malley predicts Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, will grudgingly resume negotiations.

Mr. MALLEY: In the end, the laws of political gravity may bring President Abbas back to the negotiating table because there is nowhere else to go. But he will not be in a very happy mood.

KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton says negotiations are the only way to Palestinian statehood.

Sec. CLINTON: The status quo is unacceptable, so we're going to continue to do everything we possibly can to get the parties to begin the kind of serious endgame negotiations that are necessary.

KELEMEN: Her spokesman says U.S. officials are working hard to get the two sides back to the negotiating table, but he refused to say more about the U.S. strategy from there.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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