TEL AVIV // Israel delayed a vote yesterday on a deal with the US over a settlement freeze amid a dispute with Washington about the terms of the agreement aimed at reviving Middle East talks.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, reportedly had planned to raise for debate the possible pact on a construction moratorium in Jewish settlements at his scheduled ministerial meeting.
Israeli officials, however, were quoted by the Haaretz newspaper yesterday as saying that the issue did not come to a vote because the stand-off has not been resolved despite long negotiations late on Tuesday.
The deadlock seemed to centre on Washington's reluctance to hand Israel a written commitment not to pursue another settlement freeze once the three-month building halt outlined in the new agreement expires.
Israel is also insisting that the US publicly pledge that the moratorium will not include Jewish homes in East Jerusalem, an area Palestinians want as the capital of their future state, according to Haaretz.
Washington's offer was aimed at persuading Israel to institute the three-month freeze in return for multibillion-dollar security incentives as well as diplomatic guarantees. An Israeli official said yesterday that a vote in Israel's 15-member security cabinet was being delayed as the government awaits written assurances from the US. PJ Crowley, a state department spokesman, has refused to comment on reporters' questions concerning the postponement.
Israel's direct talks with the Palestinians, re-launched with much fanfare at a White House ceremony on September 1, were suspended in late September when the previous 10-month partial moratorium on settler homes ended. Palestinians have refused to return to the negotiating table without another freeze in place.
David Hale, the assistant to the US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, yesterday briefed the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, on details of the plan at a meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah, the presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said. Mr Rudeina said Hale had not presented the Palestinian president with a solid proposal as Israel and the United States had yet to finalise the terms of the deal. Still, it was the first time the Palestinians had been officially informed of details of the offer.
For the Israeli leader, obtaining such written assurances from the US is needed to draw the backing of what is expected to be a narrow majority within the security cabinet for the deal. Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party in the coalition, has said it will oppose the pact unless Jerusalem was exempted from the freeze and unless settlement building could resume without curbs after the 90-day period.
Mr Netanyahu's insistence on a written commitment may also be the result of a dispute with the administration of the US president, Barack Obama, last year. The spat, which remains unresolved, emerged after White House officials refused to publicly commit to what Israel claimed were oral pledges made in 2004 by Mr Obama's predecessor, George W Bush, to accept building within the existing boundaries of some larger settlements.
As negotiations over the package deal drag on, cracks are appearing to emerge within Mr Netanyahu's coalition ahead of the ministerial vote. Four cabinet members from the premier's Likud party, including Benny Begin, a son of the former prime minister Menachem Begin, and Moshe Yaalon, a former military chief and current vice premier, have signed a petition initiated against the moratorium. The group of Likud legislators who had launched the petition, and who are dubbed by Israeli media as "the Likud rebels", aims to garner the support of at least half of the parliament for the letter before sending it to Mr Netanyahu.
Also yesterday, Israel took a step to calm tensions with Lebanon and Syria over control of a disputed village on the Israeli-Lebanese border.
The Israeli security cabinet approved plans to pull the country's troops out of the northern part of Ghajar and hand over control to a United Nations peacekeeping force. Israel took over the village of 2,200 residents, along with the Golan Heights, from Syria during the Arab-Israeli War in 1967. The country kept its hold on southern Ghajar but withdrew its forces from the northern part of the village in 2000, after a UN demarcation of Lebanese territory included the northern area in Beirut's control. However, Israel reoccupied northern Ghajar in 2006 during its war with Lebanon's Hizbollah militia. Hizbollah, an ally of Syria and Iran, has cited Israel's hold on northern Ghajar as a reason to continue fighting the country.
The village's fate is further complicated by the fact that its residents view themselves as Syrians, and that most of them have taken on Israeli citizenship after Israel annexed the Golan in 1981.
Ghajar's residents yesterday protested Israel's plan to split the village between itself and Lebanon and said they would prefer to stay united, regardless of who controls the entire area. Israel has insisted it will allow residents to have free movement throughout Ghajar and into and out of Israel, as they do now.
* With additional reporting from the Associated Press