Obama sets out guarantees to Netanyahu for 60-day freeze extension

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Obama administration reportedly is promising Israel broad security and diplomatic guarantees in exchange for extending a settlement moratorium by 60 days.

According to an article posted Sept. 29 by David Makovsky, a senior analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a letter from President Obama to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledges that the United States will: 

* Not ask for additional extensions on the partial ban on settlement building, which expired Sept. 26;

* Veto any U.N. Security Council resolution related to the peace talks during the yearlong period that the sides have projected for coming to a final status agreement;

* "Accept the legitimacy" of Israel’s security needs as defined by the Netanyahu government, referring apparently to the Israeli leader’s demand for a long-term Israeli military presence in the eastern West Bank, along the border with Jordan;

* Broker talks with neighboring Arab states on a "regional security structure," a nod to Netanyahu’s desire for cooperation on confronting Iran;

* Enhance Israel’s security through the sale of state-of-the- art combat aircraft, and missile defense and early warning technology, whatever the outcome of the talks.

Makovsky, who is close to Dennis Ross, Obama’s Iran policy chief who has taken a leading role recently in reviving the peace talks, does not make clear whether the letter has been sent. He refers to a "draft" version formulated by Obama administration officials in consultation with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Molcho, a top Netanyahu adviser. However, he also says that Netanyahu is familiar with the letter’s terms and is disinclined to accept them.

A White House official said no letter was sent, but would not say whether its contents were relayed to Netanyahu.

“No letter was sent to Prime Minister Netanyahu," spokesman Tommy Vietor said. "We’re not going to comment on sensitive diplomatic matters.”

Talks launched on Sept. 2 have already hit their first snag in the dispute over the settlement freeze extension. Netanyahu, who imposed the partial freeze on West Bank building last December to lure the Palestinians to the talks, has refused to extend it, saying that breaking his promise not to do so would damage his credibility.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has interrupted the talks to consult with Arab leaders over whether he should stay at the table; he has suggested that his inclination is to continue talks. He meets with Arab foreign ministers on Monday.

If Netanyahu refuses, Makovsky suggests, the Obama administration could "move in the opposite direction" and openly pressure Israel ahead of Abbas’ meeting with Arab foreign ministers.

Laura Rozen, a foreign policy reporter at Politico who obtained Makovsky’s paper before it was published, said the leak of the letter’s contents to Makovsky could be a bid by the Obama administration to pressure Netanyahu to accept its terms. Netanyahu until now has cited his right-wing base as a reason for holding fast on settlements. The broader Israeli public, however, in the past has penalized Israeli leaders who risk the security relationship with Israel’s most important ally.

"Netanyahu will undoubtedly be asked why he was willing to forego strategic benefits for Israel for reasons that relate in no small measure to retaining his political base," Makovsky wrote.

Ross and another White House official told a group of Jewish U.S. senators on Sept. 29 that the White House was seeking the 60-day extension.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who convened the meeting, told Foreign Policy’s The Cable column that Ross and Susan Sher, Obama’s liaison to the Jewish community, outlined for the senators their efforts to smooth the crisis.

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