Following a meeting with his security cabinet Wednesday, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu announced a partial settlement freeze to “help move forward” the stalled Mideast peace process. But he refused to limit settlement construction in Jerusalem.
REUTERS - Israel announced on Wednesday it was limiting settlement construction for 10 months to try to revive peace negotiations with the Palestinians, but they said the step fell short of their terms for talks.
In a move immediately welcomed by his key ally the United States, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a major step toward peace.
But his plan excluded areas of the West Bank that Israel annexed to its Jerusalem municipality after a 1967 war and building projects already under way -- falling short of the full freeze demanded by the Palestinians.
In a televised address to the nation, Netanyahu assured Israelis that a move even his left-wing critics welcomed as unprecedented would be followed by a resumption of building but urged Palestinian leaders to respond to his gesture.
"Israel today has taken a far-reaching step toward peace," he said. "It's time for the Palestinians to do the same."
However, Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said: "Any return to negotiations must be on the basis of a complete settlement freeze, and in Jerusalem foremost."
The policy, approved by Netanyahu's security cabinet, means there will be no new residential building permits issued for 10 months and that and no new house building can start in that time in "Judea and Samaria", Israel's terms for the West Bank excluding annexed areas around Jerusalem.
Israel's anti-settlement Peace Now group praised the decision as "historic".
By imposing the construction limits, Netanyahu could hope to ease international pressure on Israel and win explicit U.S. backing, while putting the onus on the Palestinians to return to negotiations without preconditions as Washington has urged.
Within moments of his speech, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama's special Middle East envoy George Mitchell both welcomed the Israeli move. They have been urging Abbas to renew negotiations without conditions.
Mitchell stressed that Washington still did not accept the legitimacy of settlements but said the Israeli move could have a "substantial impact" on efforts to resolve the conflict.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement he hoped settler leaders would view the partial freeze in the context of ensuring good relations with the United States, citing the need to maintain Israel's military superiority in the region.
Netanyahu has rejected a complete halt to construction in settlements, saying "natural growth" of settler families must be accommodated.
His governing coalition, which includes pro-settlement parties, did not appear to be in immediate danger of collapse after the security cabinet ratification.
Netanyahu has said the building of some 3,000 homes for Jews in the West Bank that were either under construction or about to be built would go ahead. Last week, Israel gave the green light for 900 new homes in a settlement near Jerusalem.
Some 500,000 Jews live in the West Bank and annexed areas around Jerusalem alongside 2.7 million Palestinians. The settlements, Palestinians fear, could deny them a viable state.
Obama had initially called on Israel to freeze settlement activity, but later softened his position by appealing only for restraint, frustrating Palestinian leaders.
Date created : 2009-11-25