Netanyahu Proposes Building Freeze Extension

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JERUSALEM, Israel - U.S. President Barack Obama said on Sunday he is encouraged by Israel's willingness to extend the building freeze in Judea and Samaria - the West Bank - by 90 days, calling it a "very constructive step" toward restarting direct talks.

"I think it's a signal that he's serious," the president told reporters upon landing at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington. "We've been in contact with both the Israelis and Palestinians to make sure we use this opportunity to start negotiating as quickly as possible on some of the final status issues that would render the settlement issue moot," Obama said.

According to media reports, Obama's offer includes 20 F-35 fighter jets in exchange for the three-month extension, an offer some analysts say Israel cannot afford to refuse.

But the Palestinian Authority expressed disappointment on two fronts: one, the extension is limited and two, it does not include neighborhoods in Jerusalem's eastern sector.

PA officials have repeatedly stated they would not continue talks without a complete halt to construction in Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria and "east" Jerusalem, meaning any neighborhoods outside the 1949 armistice line.

"A settlement freeze must be comprehensive and permanent," the PLO - Palestine Liberation Organization - said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu briefed cabinet ministers Sunday on the elements of the draft proposal produced by the seven-hour meeting in New York with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her staff.

"It is still not final; it is still being formulated by Israel and American teams," Netanyahu said.

"If and when it is complete, I will bring this proposal to the appropriate government forum, which in this case is the cabinet. In any case, I insist that any proposal meet the State of Israel's security needs, both in the immediate term and vis-à-vis the threats that we will face in the coming decade," he said.

According to media reports, Netanyahu expects the 15-member Security Cabinet to approve the extension by a one-vote margin - seven in favor, six opposed - with the two ministers from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party tentatively agreeing to abstain to allow the measure to pass.

Several ministers voiced opposition to the proposal.

Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon called it "a honey trap" that will bring future crises with the Obama government.

Likud MK Danny Danon met with community leaders and Likud party activists on Sunday evening to organize opposition to the proposed extension.

"A second construction freeze has never been and never should be a viable policy option for the Netanyahu government," Danon said in a press release.

Shomron (Samaria) Regional Council head Gershon Mesika said it was "morally offensive to declare ahead of time that the land is not ours and now it only remains to negotiate the terms of our withdrawal [from Judea and Samaria]."

Israelis remember what took place in August 2005, when then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expelled nearly 10,000 residents from 21 communities in the Gush Katif Settlement Bloc in the Gaza Strip and four in northern Samaria.

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AP contributed to this report

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