Ron Kampeas
Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) (Opinion)
October 28, 2011 - 12:00am

There's a lot of reporting in Israeli media about U.S. pressure on Israel to impose a silent freeze on settlement to allow the Palestinians wiggle room to come back to the talks table.

Maariv was apparently the first to report it Tuesday, it was picked up by Arutz Sheva, and soon enough there were the requisite squalls of outrage from the Israeli right.

Two things:

I can't find any evidence -- and I've dug in the right places -- of the United States making any such request.

There is enough detail, however, in this Ha'aretz report to suggest that there is a plan -- but that it's being touted not by the United States, but by officials within Benjamin Netanyahu's government, through Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin:

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.

A source familiar with the Palestinian position tweaks this: The offer is not to "halt building" but to freeze tenders for public building.* This allows projects underway to continue.

The Palestinians say this is a non-starter, claiming that Israel has a pattern of accelerating building under approved plans under cover of freezing the process for those not yet approved -- and then of accelerating approval of plans when the peace process is lagging, so that by the time talks are on track again there are plenty of approved plans for Israel to push ahead. They see a shell game, in other words.

Is this the case? Hard to know without eyes on the ground, or at least without a straightforward on-the-record explanation of what offers are on the table.

But I do know that successions of Israeli ministers coming through Washington have relied heavily on the "we can't legally stop building once it's been approved" excuse to explain why settlement expansion is underway when they say they are doing all they can to stop it.

In any case, what seems to be agreed is that Israel will not attempt to freeze private* development.

*When I use "public" and "private", I'm referring not to land ownership, but to which entity is advancing the project -- the government or a private company. Palestinians say that neither entity has a right to develop or claim ownership of the land.


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