On eve of Israeli-Palestinian talks, Netanyahu reassures his jittery party

With Israeli-Palestinian peace talks set to resume Sept. 2, Netanyahu may face rebellion in his Likud party over extending Israel's settlement freeze.

Nir Elias/Reuters
A laborer carries tiles on a construction site in the West Bank Jewish Settlement of Ariel, Israel August 31. With Israeli-Palestinian talks set to resume Sept. 2, Netanyahu appeared at a gathering of his Likud party, Tuesday morning, to calm supporters fretting about possible new concessions over settlement expansion.
Gali Tibbon/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office, July 25.

Hours before departing for the US to renew Israeli-Palestinian peace talks Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared at a gathering of Likud party faithful to calm supporters fretting about possible new concessions over settlement expansion.

"I can tell you, you don't have to be worried," Mr. Netanyahu said Monday night at a Tel Aviv conference hall at a gathering to celebrate the upcoming Jewish new year. "No one can teach me or my friends about the love for the Land of Israel."

The Sept. 2 talks in Washington will mark the first direct negotiations since the end of 2008. The Israeli prime minister was responding to rising calls from his political base to resist US and Palestinian pressure to extend a 10-month settlement freeze that expires Sept. 26.

IN PICTURES: Israeli settlements

Palestinians have threatened to pull out of talks if Israel continues building in the West Bank, saying such expansion eats away at the territory they want for a future state, is a sign of bad faith, and undermines public confidence in negotiations.

Likud members, however, said that the prime minister promised that the moratorium would be temporary and that he shouldn't give any new ground.

"If Netanyahu parts from the voters' values and his promises he will find himself running alone without anyone backing him," says Naftali Bennett, a party member who attended the party and is the director of a settler group known as the Yesha Council.

Repeat of 2005 Likud rift?

The turmoil harks back to the internal Likud rift following the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, when the party's right wing forced then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to abandon the party. There's concern that the Israeli prime minister could face a similar rebellion this time around.

In the days before the party send off, at least four Likud cabinet ministers and a top parliament member made public appeals to the prime minister not to yield to Palestinian demands for an extension of the freeze.

A survey of 410 party members commissioned by the settler group found that 61 percent believe that the party would split if the prime minister agrees to extend the freeze.

"The atmosphere is simmering," says Uzi Dayan, a reserve general and a former party candidate for parliament, who estimates that religious nationalists who support the settlers account for to 20 to 30 percent of Likud's active membership.

'Netanyahu sounded like Sharon'

In the hall Monday night, there were no visible signs of opposition as Netanyahu reminded party members that it was Likud founder Menachem Begin who signed Israel's first peace treaty with Egypt – an agreement which forced Israel to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula.

Parliament members sat like well-behaved pupils in the front row. Likud members carried signs of support like "Bibi, the people are with you.''

Some of the calm stems from the belief among many party members that Netanyahu won't come under new pressure because the talks will show that it is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who is not flexible enough.

One party member, Samuel Malul, explained that Likud members understand that the prime minister made the concession under the threat of international isolation. He added that the building freeze was a tactical maneuver to show Israel's good faith, and as such, it could be extended.

"I'm part of the silent majority in the party," said Mr. Malul, a former mayor of the Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona.

But the quiet atmosphere may have been misleading because the more vocal minority was largely absent, cautioned Gil Hoffman, a political columnist for the Jerusalem Post.

"[Netanyahu] sounded like Sharon sounded on the eve of disengagement," he said. "The religious people who have invaded the party were not here.''

Settlers: We won't be satisfied with promises

Outside the convention hall Monday night, activists from the Yesha Council handed out pamphlets with the headline "Building on your word,'' that included quoted promises from Netanyahu and various government ministers to end the Israeli settlement freeze.

"We made a gesture for a limited time, and this isn't open to negotiation," said Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz in an interview before the prime minister spoke.

But Likud members such as Bennett of the Yesha Council noted that Netanyahu made no new pledge to end the moratorium. Instead, Netanyahu said he would be a careful and responsible negotiator seeking a stable peace agreement.

"We won’t be satisfied with papers and promises," said Bennett. "We want real peace agreements that guarantee the security of Israel."

IN PICTURES: Israeli settlements

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