Monday, 8 November 2010

Israeli Settlers Threaten to Topple Netanyahu

AOL NEWS November 8, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

JERUSALEM (Nov. 8) -- Israeli settler leaders said today they would topple the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if he agrees to renew a building freeze demanded by the Palestinians as a precondition to restarting peace talks.

Netanyahu, who is in the United States for talks with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, appears to have abandoned an unofficial moratorium on new construction in east Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of their future state. Israelis consider all of Jerusalem their capital.

Jewish neighborhood of Har Homa in east Jerusalem
Tara Todras-Whitehill, AP

The Israeli government is moving ahead with plans to build nearly 1,300 apartments in disputed east Jerusalem, an official said Monday, a move sure to escalate frictions between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and American officials during his visit to the United States.

On Friday, with little fanfare, the Israeli government published advertisements in a Jerusalem newspaper announcing plans for 1,352 new housing units in Ramot and Har Homa, two Israeli suburbs of Jerusalem built beyond the pre-1967 Green Line border.

The news will seem like deja vu for Biden, whose trip to Israel in March was wrecked by a similar announcement of new housing units, also in Ramot. The vice president met Netanyahu over the weekend at a Jewish community conference in New Orleans and then delivered a speech seen as strongly supportive of the Jewish state.

The plan for Har Homa "C" is particularly significant since it extends the built-up area of that neighborhood to the southeast, creating a further barrier between the Arab neighborhoods of Umm Tuba and Sur Baher inside Jerusalem, and the town of Bethlehem about half a mile to the south. The construction of Har Homa, which began in 1998 during Netanyahu's first tenure as prime minister, created the first permanent Israeli presence on the empty land between Bethlehem and east Jerusalem.

Settler leaders said the new plans for east Jerusalem are the start of a burst of construction after a 10-month freeze that did little to advance Middle East peace.

The Palestinians refused to start direct peace talks until nine months into the freeze and broke them off when the moratorium ended. Since then, the Obama administration has been trying to find a formula that will bring both sides back to the table but still save face -- an apparently impossible task.

The Yesha Council of Israeli settlers in the West Bank -- which the settlers call by the biblical names Judea and Samaria -- has demanded the immediate approval of tenders for 4,321 new units in nine West Bank settlements.

Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, told AOL News today that if Netanyahu buckled to U.S. pressure and renewed the freeze, the prime minister would be ousted.

"I think it will be the beginning of the collapse of Mr. Netanyahu's government, and we will make an effort to make that happen," Dayan said, referring to the settlers' supporters in several of the parties in the government coalition, including Netanyahu's own Likud.

"Regardless of our efforts, I think that if Netanyahu makes such a decision, ultimately his government will collapse," he said. Netanyahu's first term as prime minister ended when right-wingers brought down his government over a similar dispute about concessions to the Palestinians.

Two key allies in Netanyahu's coalition -- Eli Yishai of Shas and Daniel Hershkowitz of the Jewish Home Party -- have already publicly said they will not support a renewal of the moratorium.

"The issue of extending the settlement freeze is nonnegotiable. For 10 months Israel made gestures above and beyond what was required, and now it's the Palestinians' turn," Hershkowitz said.

Peace Now, the Israeli group that monitors settlement activity and campaigns for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, said the new plans for Jerusalem had to have received Netanyahu's personal approval.

"This is a huge provocation by Netanyahu, at a very sensitive time in the negotiation process. The timing of this depositing is not accidental," Peace Now spokeswoman Hagit Ofran said. "It seems to be a calculated attempt by Netanyahu to torpedo peace talks and also avoid blame, by forcing the Palestinians to be the ones to walk away from the negotiation table."

Last March, Netanyahu said he was surprised by the announcement that tripped up Biden's visit. Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney specializing in Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem and the founder of the co-existence group Ir Amim, said this time Netanyahu himself had chosen "the timing and the context of these moves."

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"The scope of these events goes beyond simple tactical maneuvering. It appears that Netanyahu has opened up the east Jerusalem settlement floodgates. It appears that the prime minister has a special weakness for Vice President Biden -- or at least for embarrassing the man," Seidemann said. "He has rewarded Vice President Biden for his staunch support of Israel by publicly humiliating the vice president once again and sticking a finger in the eye of the Obama administration."

But Dayan, the settler leader, suggested that by its "obsession with the marginal issue of a freeze" the Palestinians and the U.S. administration had backed themselves into a corner.

"Renewal of the freeze will bring ultimately elections in Israel in 2011, which means the whole peace process will be paralyzed," Dayan told AOL News. "Then we have elections in the United States in 2012. So the ironic thing is that if Mr. Netanyahu abides by the American demands and renews the moratorium, that will be a big blow to the peace process, not only to construction in Judea and Samaria."

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