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Israeli ruling coalition wobbles as US peace proposal looms

By Reuters - Jan 30,2014 - Last updated at Jan 30,2014

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — A pending US framework proposal to propel stumbling Israeli-Palestinian peace talks forward chipped away on Wednesday at a troubled alliance between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and an ultranationalist ally in his governing coalition.

No date has been announced for US Secretary of State John Kerry to unveil his blueprint, but new skirmishing between the prime minister and far-right partner Naftali Bennett suggested crunch time was near.

Bennett’s Jewish Home Party advocates annexation of some of the West Bank — occupied territory that Palestinians seek for a state — and it has threatened to end its partnership with Netanyahu if, he says, any handover of land of biblical significance to Jews were in the offing.

In a hard-hitting speech to an international security conference on Tuesday, Bennett aired veiled criticism of Netanyahu — sending a signal that he believed the Israeli leader was primed to accept Kerry’s peace guidelines.

“Neither our forefathers nor our descendants will forgive the Israeli leader who gives away our land and divides our capital,” said Bennett, an Orthodox Jew who often emphasises a biblical connection to the West Bank and Jerusalem.

In a speech at the same Tel Aviv security forum, Netanyahu said Kerry would offer “American positions” and that “Israel does not have to agree to anything the Americans present”.

Israeli officials, speaking anonymously, were livid over Bennett’s accusations. A senior member of Jewish Home, Housing Minister Uri Ariel, told Israel Radio on Wednesday he was mediating a “crisis” between Bennett and Netanyahu.

Amid the bickering, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman laid out the broad outlines of what he said was the “expected” Kerry framework proposal. An Israeli political source gave a similar account.

Phased withdrawal envisaged

According to the report, the plan entails an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and all claims, following a phased Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, with unprecedented security arrangements in the strategic Jordan Valley.

The pullout, the newspaper said, will not include certain settlement blocs but Israel will offer Israeli territory to the Palestinians in compensation.

The proposal further envisages the Palestinians having their capital in East Jerusalem and recognising Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. It will not include any right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel.

Palestinians under President Mahmoud Abbas in limited self-ruled areas of the West Bank seek a state covering the entire territory and the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as their capital. Israel pulled settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but Hamas Islamists sworn to Israel’s destruction now rule the enclave.

Israel has insisted on a long-term security presence in the Jordan Valley — forming the West Bank’s eastern border — under any peace deal, a position rejected by Palestinian leaders.

The future of settlers on land Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war was the core of the Netanyahu-Bennett flareup.

On Saturday, an unidentified Netanyahu aide said the Israeli leader would insist Jewish settlers have a right to remain under Palestinian rule in any future peace deal.

It was, political sources later conceded, a calculated attempt to portray Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as a naysayer unwilling to accept the notion of a Jewish minority in his country — while Netanyahu had an Arab minority in his own.

The exercise backfired, however, when attention shifted to Bennett’s angry reaction on Facebook, where he demanded Netanyahu “immediately refute this dangerous proposal”.

Bad blood between Bennett, who once served as a senior Netanyahu aide, is nothing new. The main opposition Labour Party has said it would be prepared to replace Jewish Home in the coalition to prevent its collapse over peace issues.

The coalition controls 68 of parliament’s 120 seats, of which Jewish Home holds 12 and Labour 15.

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