Ilene Prusher
The Christian Science Monitor
March 31, 2010 - 12:00am

President Barack Obama asked Israel to agree to put a four-month freeze on plans to pursue controversial construction projects in East Jerusalem, in return for enabling direct Israel-Palestinian peace talks to start, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Wednesday.

The paper quoted an unnamed official in Jerusalem. Officials at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv were unavailable for comment.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the prime minister's office had no comment on the proposal and could not confirm its veracity. "We won't we won't talk about it unless they do first," said spokesman Mark Regev.

Nonetheless, such a request fits in with Mr. Obama's outlook in the standoff between Jerusalem and Washington, which has been simmering since the visit here earlier this month of Vice President Joe Biden. In the middle of Mr. Biden's visit, a member of Mr. Netanyahu's cabinet announced the construction of 1,600 new housing units as part of plans to expand a Jewish housing development called Ramat Shlomo in an otherwise Arab area of East Jerusalem. And, during Netanyahu's visit to Washington last week, the Jerusalem municipality gave authorization for 200 homes for Jews in Sheikh Jarrah, also in East Jerusalem.

A four-month freeze would be in sync with guidelines set by the Arab League, which declared its support last week for talks between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel for four months only, in a move meant to convey that peace was a limited-time offer. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said that he would not agree to talks with Israel until it declares a settlement freeze not just in the West Bank, but in East Jerusalem as well.

But Netanyahu, mindful of his rightist allies, is unlikely to agree to a four-month halt, says political analyst Jonathan Spyer.

"My own sense is that it's a non-starter. I'm not sure if it's a trial balloon, but if so, I don't see it flying," says Dr. Spyer, a senior research fellow at Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA), part of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

"Everything we're hearing from Netanyahu's cabinet indicates that they're not interested in a freeze in Jerusalem. This kind of pressure on the coalition isn't sustainable and if Netanyahu were to make a move like that, it will collapse," he says.

Although some analysts and columnists predicted upon Netanyahu's return from Washington that Netanyahu's coalition might in any case be forced to reconstitute itself, with left-leaning Labor party members trying to bring the centrist Kadima into the coalition, Spyer doubted this would be successful. "I think it's more likely that the current coalition will limp on," he says.

The Haaretz article suggested that while Netanyahu's top ministers, known as the "forum of seven" would not agree to an outright building freeze in Jerusalem, they might be open to a "quiet understanding" on the issue. Palestinians, however, say that short of an official freeze, building will continue in the territory on which they hope to establish their state.

The forum of seven was expected to meet again during the Passover holiday, despite most government offices being closed, to discuss Obama's requests, which include the freeze in Jerusalem as well as an extension of the 10-month building moratorium in the West Bank settlements, which expires in September.


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