Barak Ravid
October 21, 2011 - 12:00am

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he's willing to freeze government construction in West Bank settlements as well as all construction on government land there. In return, he needs an agreement by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to resume direct peace talks.

According to a senior Israeli official, Abbas has not yet responded, but he has been threatening to resign if there is no diplomatic progress in the next three months.

The Prime Minister's Office said, however, that Netanyahu did not offer an additional freeze; Israel's position had not changed: an immediate start to direct talks with the Palestinian Authority with no preconditions.

The senior Israeli official said a new proposal was relayed to Abbas on Wednesday by Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin, who arrived on a surprise visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. She was sent by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has launched a mediation effort in an attempt to break the deadlock in the peace process.

The mediation took shape on October 11, when Abbas arrived in Colombia to try to convince the president of Colombia, currently a member of the UN Security Council, to support the PA's bid for full UN membership, a senior Israeli official said.

Before Abbas' visit, Santos contacted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, proposing that he mediate due to the close Colombian-Israeli ties and his good relations with Abbas. Clinton gave the effort her blessing.

Santos also spoke to Netanyahu, with whom he had met two weeks earlier on the sidelines of the meeting of the UN General Assembly. Netanyahu said he was ready to cooperate in the Colombian initiative. Though Santos told Abbas he strongly opposed the Palestinians' unilateral statehood bid at the United Nations, Abbas did not oppose Colombian mediation. That laid the groundwork for Santos to send his foreign minister on a secret visit to the region.

On Tuesday she met Abbas in Ramallah and presented a number of formulas for a meeting between Abbas and Netanyahu, one of which would involve a secret meeting between the two in the region. Or there would be secret channels at a lower level. Another option was for the two leaders to meet in Colombia.

Abbas told Holguin that he did not oppose a resumption of negotiations with Israel, but Netanyahu would have to commit to certain steps regarding settlement construction, even if only a symbolic gesture that would let Abbas present it to the Palestinian public as an accomplishment.

On Wednesday, Holguin met with Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's Office. According to a senior Israeli official, Holguin told the prime minister that Abbas was in a particularly gloomy mood and sounded despondent during their talk.

The source noted that Israel had received similar reports recently of Abbas' dejected mood from a number of Western diplomats. According to one report, Abbas was bitter at Netanyahu, saying that the Israeli prime minister would like to see him slaughtered because Abbas was currently the most dangerous person Israel faced. The diplomat said this week's prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas had made Abbas even more depressed.

Holguin told Netanyahu that Abbas had threatened to resign if there was no progress over the next three months either in the admission of Palestine as a UN member or in negotiations with Israel. Netanyahu said he was not concerned; this was not the first time the Palestinian president had threatened to resign and it wouldn't be the last.

Holguin told Netanyahu that Abbas desperately needed a symbolic gesture from Israel on the settlement issue. Netanyahu surprised her by responding that he would be ready to make such a gesture if it would return Abbas to the negotiating table.

He agreed to freeze construction by the government and to halt building on government land. But he said he would not agree to freeze construction by private developers on privately-owned land in the settlements. Only a small portion of construction in the settlements is carried out or funded by the government, however. Most is performed by private parties.

Netanyahu said the Palestinians were using the settlement issue as an excuse to stay away from the negotiating table, adding that his government had built less in the settlements than any previous government. Netanyahu said he was ready to test Abbas by making the gesture regarding settlements. If Abbas is serious about negotiations, he will renew direct talks, Netanyahu said.

Senior Israeli officials said they do not believe Abbas is interested in renewed talks with Israel but would rather continue to pursue the Palestinian membership bid at the United Nations. This month's prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit only reinforces that intention, the officials said.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017