Image Credit: Gulf News

Manama: Israel and the United States are holding behind-the-scenes talks geared at resolving a recent deadlock in Mideast peace talks with the Palestinians, Israel's prime minister said on Monday.

"Israel is in the midst of sensitive diplomatic contacts with the US administration in order to find a solution that will allow the continuation of the talks," Benjamin Netanyahu said at the cabinet meeting. "We will quietly consider the situation and the complex reality away from the spotlights," the premier said, advising fellow cabinet members to be "patient, act responsibly, calmly and - above all - quietly. This is exactly what we must do," Haaretz daily reported.

He added that "now there is interest in continuing the peace negotiations."
Netanyahu's comments came after a report by the London-based newspaper Asharq Al Awsat quoted Israeli officials as saying earlier on Monday that the premier had agreed to extend Israel's freeze on settlement construction by 60 days.

The Saudi paper's report was published amid recent claims that US President Barack Obama had offered Netanyahu an incentive package in exchange for keeping settlement construction at bay, a move which could quell Palestinian concerns over settlement building and consequently bring them back to the negotiations table.

According to Israeli sources quoted in the report, Netanyahu expressed his preliminary approval to extend Israel's moratorium on settlement building, adding that he conditioned such a move on a list of US assurances, which included a continued Israeli military presence in the Jordan valley and continued US political and military support.

Sources quoted by Asharq Al Awsat also said Netanyahu claimed that the assurances listed would aid him in the face of the widespread internal opposition expected to such a move.

Last week, the White House denied that Obama sent Netanyahu a letter proposing a set of US guarantees to Israel in exchange for Israel extending a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank for another two months.

"No letter was sent to the Prime Minister. We are not going to comment on sensitive diplomatic matters,” Benjamin Chang, the deputy spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said.

Obama's letter was said to include a long list of American favours in exchange for an extension of the settlement building freeze, which ended this week. Most of these favours are critical to Israel's strategic security needs that Netanyahu has been demanding for years, Haaretz reported.

Other commitments that Obama reportedly offered Netanyahu in the letter include an agreement not to ask for any more building freeze extensions, an agreement to veto any anti-Israel UN Security Council resolution in the next year, and an agreement that the future fate of the settlements be dealt with only as part of a final status agreement with the Palestinians.

Obama's letter was said to include additional commitments, including a series of guarantees to prevent the smuggling of weapons and missiles into a Palestinian state, a lengthy period of interim security arrangements in the Jordan Valley and a comprehensive regional defense pact for protection from Iran to follow the establishment of the Palestinian state.

The American president also reportedly vowed to upgrade Israel's security capabilities and increase the $3 billion security aid package that Israel receives annually. The letter included commitments to advanced weapons and early warning systems, including satellites.