Mideast peace talks rely on quick border deal

JERUSALEM – Washington’s new proposal for reviving Mideast talks, presented to Israel’s Cabinet, relies on the bold expectation that Israelis and Palestinians will be able to sketch a border between them in three months.

That’s the period the plan sets aside for a one-time extension of a ban on new construction in West Bank settlements.

The proposal was worked out in a seven-hour meeting last week in New York between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. USofficials said Netanyahu told the administration that he supports the plan and will try to win approval from his Cabinet.

But 90 days seems to be very short time to achieve what Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have failed to do in nearly two decades of intermittent talks, particularly since the current gaps between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are much wider than those in previous rounds.

The “borders first” approach could help defuse the dispute over Israeli settlement expansion on war-won land, which derailed negotiations just three weeks after they were launched in Washington in early September.

A border deal, even in rough outlines, could delineate which areas Israel could expect to keep in a final peace deal and where it would thus be free to keep building homes for Jews.

But it’s a risky strategy. The Palestinians have said they will not negotiate without a settlement curb. If three months of talks end without real progress on borders and there’s no prospect of extending the freeze, US mediation would appear in grave jeopardy.

Yet the Obama administration believes it’s the best way forward as it thinks the gaps on territory are not insurmountable, according to a US official. The administration believes that enough progress can be made on borders to keep the Palestinians invested in the talks, even if no final border deal is reached in three months.

Under the US plan, Netanyahu would agree to a 90-day ban on housing starts in West Bank settlements, but not in east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ hoped-for capital.

Obama praised Netanyahu for considering another slowdown. “I commend Prime Minister Netanyahu for taking, I think, a very constructive step,” he said. “It’s not easy for him to do, but I think its a signal that he is serious,” he told reporters on his plane heading home to Washington from Asia.

A previous 10-month moratorium in the West Bank expired Sept. 26, and Israeli settlers have since resumed construction at an accelerated pace, all but making up for past restrictions, according to new figures released Sunday by the Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now. Lawmakers and Cabinet ministers gave conflicting accounts on whether the new building curb would be retroactive.

In exchange for renewed building restrictions, the White House would pledge to ask Congress to sell Israel 20 stealth fighter jets for $3 billion, Cabinet Minister Yuli Edelstein told the Associated Press. Washington also pledged to use its veto to quash perceived anti-Israeli resolutions at the UN over the coming year and to reach a security agreement with Israel as part of a final deal, the minister said.

In Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu portrayed the deal in a positive light, Edelstein said. Another Cabinet member, Avishay Braverman from the centrist Labor party, said he expected Netanyahu to win approval if he pushes hard.

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