The security cabinet voted yesterday to impose a partial 10-month freeze on construction in West Bank settlements, which will not apply to East Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced yesterday. He said the partial freeze was a bid to restart stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.
The construction of 3,000 new housing units in the settlements will continue unabated, as will construction of public facilities like synagogues and schools.
"I hope that this decision will help launch meaningful negotiations to reach a historic peace agreement that will finally end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians," Netanyahu said at a press conference he held shortly after the security cabinet approved the moratorium.
He said in a closed meeting that it was up to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to take the next step.
"The ball is now in the Palestinian court, and it's Abu Mazen's turn to act and renew negotiations - no more excuses," Netanyahu said.
No new building permits will be given while the construction moratorium is in effect, and construction that has not begun will be put off even if permits have been issued.
When the freeze ends, Israel will return to the policy of the Sharon and Olmert governments, which approved construction to accommodate natural growth in settlements.
George Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, said the limited freeze was "significant."
"While they fall short of a full freeze, we believe the steps announced by the prime minister are significant and could have substantial impact on the ground," he said. "For the first time ever an Israeli government will stop housing approvals and all new construction of housing units and related infrastructure in West Bank settlements. That's a positive development."
Mitchell said U.S. policy on Jerusalem had not changed and that "the status of Jerusalem and all other permanent status issues must be resolved by the parties through negotiations." The United States disagrees with some Israeli actions in Jerusalem, such as house demolitions, he said.
The Palestinians said they were disappointed that the freeze would not apply to Jerusalem, and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Netanyahu chose settlements over peace.
"We do not believe we can restart the negotiations with them while they are continuing building in our territories," Abbas said. "They should stop it and after that we negotiate the borders."
However, Mitchell said all those who oppose settlements should consider that in 10 months, there will be fewer buildings than there could have been without the partial freeze. He said that in negotiations, everyone has to be willing to give more than intended and receives less than expected.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States remains committed to the two-state solution.
"We believe that through good-faith negotiations the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements," she said. "Let me say to all the people of the region and world: our commitment to achieving a solution with two states living side by side in peace and security is unwavering."
Netanyahu had intended to announce the freeze last week, but because of the reports in Yedioth Ahronoth of American protests over construction in Gilo, the announcement was postponed by a week.
Even after former MK Yossi Beilin revealed the prime minister's decision last week, Netanyahu's bureau would not confirm it.
At the beginning of the week, the Prime Minister's Bureau informed the White House that the cabinet was to meet and release a statement about the halt to construction. The message Israel conveyed was that this was a unilateral step designed to bring Abbas back to the negotiating table.
Netanyahu's bureau said yesterday that there was no connection between the statement and negotiations for the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit.
In his statement shortly after the cabinet approved the freeze, Netanyahu called the decision "far-reaching and painful."
He added: "We have been told by many of our friends that once Israel takes the first meaningful steps toward peace, the Palestinians and Arab states would respond."
"We do not put any restrictions on building in our sovereign capital," the premier said. Only a single cabinet minister, Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau (Yisrael Beiteinu) voted against the moratorium. Supporters included Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) and ministers Benny Begin and Moshe Ya'alon (Likud). Ministers Eli Yishai and Ariel Atias (Shas) absented themselves from the vote.
"We cannot agree to freeze settlement for even one day," Yishai said after the vote. However, an hour later, he said: "The prime minister is making huge efforts to move the diplomatic process forward and we are looking together to the future."
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