by Gur Salomon
JERUSALEM, Nov. 14 (Xinhua) -- A heated debate erupted at the Israeli cabinet's weekly meeting on Sunday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented his ministers with a U.S. proposal to give Israel 20 fighter jets in exchange for an extension of freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank.
According to the American proposal, discussed between Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday, Israel would renew the settlement moratorium for 90 days, including construction that resumed following the expiration of the first moratorium on Sept. 26.
In return, the Israeli Air Force would receive an additional 20 F-35 stealth fighter jets, worth 3 billion U.S. dollars. Moreover, the United States would guarantee to veto any anti-Israel initiative in the UN, implement harsher sanctions against Iran and support Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity.
The new 90-day construction moratorium does not apply to construction in East Jerusalem. Israel will not be required to extend the new moratorium once it expires. The offer has not yet been officially accepted by Israel, and its final details require additional discussion with the U.S.
After initially presenting the proposal to the septet (the forum of seven senior ministers) on Saturday upon returning to Israel from his five-day visit to the U.S. last week, Netanyahu on Sunday encountered fierce opposition to the proposal from Likud hard-liners at the weekly cabinet meeting.
Four ministers, including vice premiers Moshe Ya'alon and Silvan Shalom, and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein and Environment Minister Gilad Erdan, expressed strong opposition to the deal, local daily Ha'aretz reported Sunday, quoting unnamed sources.
"What is at stake isn't a three-month freeze, but in fact the beginning of negotiations over the borders of a (future) Palestinian state," Shalom said, adding that "it is a strategic error to condition an American veto (in the UN Security Council) and diplomatic support from Washington upon the continuation of a building freeze," Ha'aretz quoted Shalom as saying.
"The government has itself committed to ending the freeze. The freeze was a mistake, and we must oppose its continuation. The strategic covenant between the U.S. and ourselves cannot depend on certain actions," said Edelstein.
In an effort to appease the objectors, Netanyahu said the proposed deal has not been finalized and is still being discussed by Israeli and American officials. He said that once the agreement is complete, he intends to bring it to the Cabinet and ask for its approval prior to implementation.
Prior to Sunday's meeting, government coalition head Ze'ev Elkin said he believes a majority of Likud ministers and legislators will oppose the new proposal, citing concern that it will lead to U.S. pressure on Israel to reach an agreement on the borders of a future Palestinian state once peace talks resume.
Elkin and parliamentarian Aryeh Eldad of the National Union Party on Sunday sent a letter to right-wing ministers and legislators, calling on them to oppose the U.S. proposal.
"No security package can be as worthy as the security provided by the hills and Jordan Valley," the letter said.
The Habayit Hayehudi party, a right-wing member of the coalition, on Sunday threatened to withdraw from the government if the construction freeze is extended. Party head Uri Orbach said, " We will not be a partner to Netanyahu and the Likud's freeze obsession."
The Palestinian responses to the news of the deal were moderate. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinian National Authority was not informed about the proposal ahead of its announcement by Netanyahu on Sunday. "They (the U.S.) know we have a major problem in not including East Jerusalem (in the building freeze)," Erekat was quoted by Ha'aretz as saying.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will bring the U.S. proposal to Palestinian decision-makers and will ask for an immediate convening of the Arab League before announcing his official decision on the matter, according to Erekat.
Special Report: Palestine-Israel Conflicts