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Levin: White House pushing 60-day settlement freeze extension

Levin: White House pushing 60-day settlement freeze extension

Senior White House officials told a group of Jewish lawmakers Wednesday morning that the Obama administration is pushing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend the now-lapsed settlement building moratorium for 60 days as one way to allow Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to continue, said Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) in an exclusive interview with The Cable.

The U.S. push for a 60-day freeze was reported Tuesday by Bloomberg and Politico, attributed to secondhand anonymous sources, but Levin’s account is the first on the record account from a U.S. government leader that the White House has embraced the proposal as a way to keep the talks alive.

If Netanyahu accepts the deal, which he has shown no public signs of doing, negotiations begun by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sept. 1 would likely proceed past the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 2. It is still unclear what exactly would be different on the Israeli or Palestinian sides after the 60 day period expired that would allow the process to move forward from there.

NSC senior director Dennis Ross and Michelle Obama‘s chief of staff Susan Sher met with only Jewish senators Wednesday morning at the White House’s behest.

"They laid out some of the challenges ahead and explained what steps were being taken to keep the negotiations going," Levin said about the meeting, which went on for over an hour.

"They’re talking about trying to find a way to get the parties to continue negotiating. With Netanyahu, it’s about figuring out a way to get to the 60-day freeze, or with [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas, trying to figure out a way on his end, if that freeze is not put back in place, to return to negotiations," Levin said. "They’re trying to figure it from both directions."

Levin, who organized the meeting, declined to specify how the White House is trying to convince Abbas to continue with the peace talks if the 60-day freeze is not implemented. He was one of the 87 senators who signed a letter earlier this week asking Obama to put pressure on Abbas to stay at the negotiating table.

Today, he said he supported the strategy that the administration was pursuing.

"I’m glad the administration is working to find a way to move forward, so I was satisfied the administration is doing everything they can do," Levin said.

Special Envoy George Mitchell, his deputy David Hale, and the NSC’s Dan Shapiro are in the region now, meeting with both parties. The team will meet with the Israelis today and the Palestinians Thursday. Mitchell is also planning to visit a number of Arab countries ahead of the Arab League meeting Oct. 4, where a decision regarding its position on future of the talks will be made.

"I’m not optimistic or pessimistic," Levin said about his hopes for the success of the negotiations, adding that he was skeptical of anyone who was optimistic about talks regarding the difficult challenge of reaching a Mideast peace deal.

"Realistically, there’s a desire on the part of both sides to try to keep this process going. That’s the heart of the matter, that both of the parties want to find a way to do it."

The White House has been ramping up its public outreach to Jewish lawmakers and community leaders throughout September in hopes of persuading them to support the process and convince their constituencies to do so as well.

In a Sept. 7 conference call with rabbis of all political  stripes, Obama himself made this plea, asking Jewish leaders to ignore negative public statements by both Netanyahu and Abbas, calling them all part of the diplomatic game.

"I guarantee you over the next four months, six months, a year, in any given week there’s going to be something said by someone in the Palestinian Authority that makes your blood boil and makes you think we can’t do this," Obama said, according to a recording of the call provided to The Cable. "We’re going to have to work through those things."