Israel awaits US assurances on moratorium proposal |

Israel awaits US assurances on moratorium proposal

JERUSALEM (AP) – As diplomatic efforts gathered steam, Israel on Thursday awaited a crucial U.S. document meant to persuade government hard-liners to renew limits on settlement construction and give stalled Mideast peacemaking a boost.

A U.S. official told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Washington was drafting a letter detailing understandings on the proposed 90-day moratorium on new construction that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reached with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York last week.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, whose ministers can make or break the deal, say they will let it go through if Israel receives explicit U.S. assurances that the building limits would apply only to the West Bank and not to east Jerusalem.

Palestinians want construction to halt in both war-won areas, which they claim for their future state along with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

But they have not set that as a condition for resuming U.S.-brokered peace talks, which broke down in late September, just three weeks after they began at the White House, following the expiry of a 10-month moratorium on new West Bank construction.

In a sign the gaps might be narrowing, Shas said it has received assurances that if it abstains in a vote on the deal, Defense Minister Ehud Barak will authorize the construction of hundreds of apartments in the West Bank immediately after the moratorium expires, an official close to the party said.

Some of the construction would take place in specifically ultra-Orthodox communities and other projects would be built in a settlement just outside Jerusalem, giving Shas something to take back to constituents who might otherwise oppose another moratorium.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the deal has not been officially announced. The Defense Ministry couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Shas is critical to winding up a moratorium deal because the decision-making inner Cabinet that will vote on it is almost evenly split, and Shas holds the two swing votes.

Netanyahu, who has said he would push hard to clinch a deal, also wants the U.S. letter to spell out that the proposed moratorium would be the last. A vote could come as early as Thursday, though officials said nothing had been scheduled by early morning.

To entice the Israelis to sign on to the deal, the U.S. has proposed a package of incentives including a gift of 20 next-generation stealth fighter planes and U.S. pledges to veto anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations, Israeli officials have said.

During the 90-day freeze period, the U.S. hopes Israel and the Palestinians would make significant progress toward working out a deal on their future borders. With borders determined, Israel could then resume building on any territories it would expect to keep under a final peace deal.