Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
November 18, 2010 - 1:00am

JERUSALEM — Israel’s inner cabinet approved a plan in principle on Wednesday to withdraw from the northern part of a village straddling the border with Lebanon, addressing an American concern and a longstanding point of contention between Israel and Lebanon.

A United Nations line placed northern Ghajar in Lebanon.
But the action was unlikely to ease American pressure on Israel regarding a new moratorium on construction in West Bank settlements that is intended to get Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track.

Ghajar, a far-flung village of pastel-colored houses, has had a complicated history, sitting at a volatile juncture where Israel, Lebanon and Syria meet.

Both the United States and the Lebanese government have been keen to settle the issue of Ghajar, in part to deny Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia, any justification for attacking Israel on grounds that it is occupying Lebanese territory.

The 2,200 residents of Ghajar are members of the Alawite sect, the governing minority of Syria. The village came under Israeli control with the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau that Syria lost to Israel in the 1967 war. When Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, the villagers chose to become Israeli citizens.

But when Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000, the United Nations determined that the line of Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon would run through the center of Ghajar, which by that time had significantly expanded to the north.

The border remained mostly a virtual one, and when Israel went to war in 2006 against Hezbollah, Israeli soldiers returned to take control of the part that sits on Lebanese soil. Under the cease-fire terms of the United Nations Security Council resolution that ended the 2006 war, Israel was expected to withdraw, but did not do so, citing security concerns.

The Israeli cabinet did not set a date for withdrawal from northern Ghajar. The government said in a statement that the new arrangement still had to be completed in coordination with the United Nations and Unifil, its peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, and that the details would be completed “as soon as possible.” Officials said the goal was to complete the details within a month.

About 1,550 of Ghajar’s residents now live in the northern half, while the village’s schools, services and agricultural land are all in the south. The residents have expressed concern about how the village will function once it is split between two powers, and whether they will have to constantly cross checkpoints between the two sides.

Moreover, as dual Israeli-Syrian citizens whose allegiance is to Syria, they insist that they never belonged to Lebanon.

Israel’s 15-member inner cabinet, which must approve any further moratorium on settlement construction, was meeting for the first time since Israeli and American leaders reached broad agreement last week on an additional 90-day construction freeze, but it did not discuss the issue.

Israeli officials say that the deal, which includes security and diplomatic benefits for Israel, will not be taken to the cabinet until Israel receives the terms in writing from Washington. No date has been set for a cabinet vote.

The Palestinians suspended negotiations after Israel’s 10-month moratorium on building in West Bank settlements expired in late September. The Obama administration has been pushing hard for another temporary freeze, offering Israel a package of incentives — including 20 stealth fighter jets and diplomatic support at the United Nations — to enable the talks to resume.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing tough opposition to such a move within his governing coalition and his own conservative Likud Party. In a letter released on Wednesday, 14 of the 27 members of the Likud parliamentary caucus, including four ministers, said they were opposed to any further freeze.

Israeli officials say that without an American letter laying out the terms of the deal and the benefits to Israel, it will be hard for the deal to pass through the cabinet.

“If the prime minister is going to go to the cabinet, he needs full clarity about the American position,” said an official in the prime minister’s office, speaking on condition of anonymity because discussions were still under way with the Americans.

Political experts here have calculated that the 90-day moratorium should pass in the inner cabinet by one vote, on the condition that the two ministers from the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party abstain. Shas has said that it will abstain so long as the freeze does not apply in East Jerusalem.

The Americans will not give written approval for construction in contested East Jerusalem, but Israeli officials suggested that if the Americans were to write more ambiguously that the new moratorium would take the same form as the last one, that could be interpreted here to mean that it would not apply in East Jerusalem. It was not clear, however, whether that would satisfy Shas.

Israeli officials also emphasized that Mr. Netanyahu wanted to discuss all the final-status issues during these 90 days, not just the question of borders. The administration hopes that the Israelis and Palestinians will make enough progress on the contours of a Palestinian state that the dispute over settlements will recede as an issue. While Mr. Netanyahu was committed to discussing borders, Israeli officials said, the Israeli government could not pledge that there would be enough progress in 90 days to remove settlements as an issue.


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