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ISRAEL: New campaign counts down to end of settlement construction freeze

April 23, 2010 | 10:57 am

(click image for ticker)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in December declared a 10-month construction freeze in the West Bank settlements. He said he hoped the move would "help launch meaningful negotiations to reach an historic peace agreement that would finally end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians."

It could have, maybe, but the freeze -- gradually renamed "suspension" -- was partial, didn't include East Jerusalem and was rejected by the Palestinians. Things floundered around until last month when ill-timed reports of construction planned in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem dragged down peace matters -- along with Israeli-U.S. relations -- during Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel.

Netanyahu has since been under heavy pressure to apply a full freeze in Jerusalem and come up with a positive policy on other issues. After weeks of consultations among the ministerial "forum of seven," Netanyahu answered U.S. demands, reportedly a list of 11 points. On Jerusalem, the answer was no. At least publicly. Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar writes that President Obama has offered Netanyahu a gentleman's agreement on Jerusalem, understanding that Netanyahu cannot afford to hint that Jerusalem is being treated like West Bank settlements -- a Middle East version of "don't ask, don't tell."

The freeze is already halfway through, ending in September, right around the corner.

Also around that corner are several members of Netanyahu's political party who opposed the freeze from the beginning and eagerly await its expiration date. He had promised them that building would resume after the freeze, and they're waiting with a stopwatch. Or rather, an hourglass.

Danny Danon, deputy speaker of parliament, is launching a countdown campaign with a virtual hourglass and ticker showing time left on the freeze. It is meant as "a reminder to Prime Minister Netanyahu that we are counting down the days and hours until the end of this mistaken building freeze," Danon, of the Likud Party, said. "We know that the Americans will begin pressuring the prime minister in May to extend the freeze, and we hope to counter this effort by helping him remain firm in his commitment to the residents of Judea and Samaria and to the principles of our history and his movement."

Former Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk wrote this week that with a shift in America's Middle East interests, "Netanyahu must make a choice: take on the president of the United States, or take on his right wing." Danon called his comments an unacceptable and out-of-line "unprecedented intervention in Israeli politics."

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Graphic: The hourglass campaign; click image for countdown and ticker. Credit: Danny Danon's website