Construction West Bank - AP
Construction in the West Bank settlement of Modi’in Ilit. Photo by AP
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that construction in major settlement blocs does not substantially affect Israel's ability to come to an agreement with the Palestinians and the substantial question is whether the Palestinians have the will to accept the Jewish state.

"Construction in communities in Judea and Samaria will continue, and is continuing still today, but we must be aware of what is happening around us," said Netanyahu.

"We must be smart, not just right," he added. "Settlement in the [West Bank and East Jerusalem] blocs does not significantly change our ability to reach an agreement – that is a false claim. The real question is whether there is or isn't a willingness [among the Palestinians] to accept a Jewish state."

Ofir Akunis, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Office, backed the prime minister's remarks by asserting that past experience has shown that a halt to construction has only driven the Palestinians away from negotiating with Israel. "The Likud policy is very consistent. Our call to the Palestinians to enter into direct peace negotiations without precondition is in effect," he said.

Netanyahu and Akunis made his remarks shortly after Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Avigdor Lieberman confirmed that Israel has observed a de facto building freeze in Jerusalem neighborhoods located beyond the Green Line since the beginning of the year, despite repeated denial to that effect by Netanyahu and Akunis.

City planning officials in Jerusalem had previously stated that in practice, construction in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem is on hold. But Lieberman offered the first official confirmation.

In his remarks Monday, Netanyahu declared that construction in West Bank settlements was ongoing and would continue. "It is continuing now," he said, but added: "you need to understand what is going on around us."

He also said that the imposition of more and more preconditions on the part of the Palestinians presents what he called "an insurmountable obstacle," but the alternative to negotiations is a bi-national state, which Israel does not want. Israel, he added, was not imposing preconditions, while the Palestinians have been deliberately interjecting unacceptable demands "just to avoid entering negotiations."

If a Palestinian state is established, the prime minister said, it would have to be demilitarized and with arrangements that rely fully on the Israel Defense Forces for security. In an apparent reference to the failure of United Nations peacekeeping troops to maintain order on the Syrian side of the cease-fire line in the Golan Heights and the withdrawal of the Austrian contingent, Netanyahu added: "International forces could be in the area, but there cannot be reliance on them. We've seen what is happening with the international forces in the Golan Heights.

The discussion pertaining to Jerusalem construction came after Army Radio reported that since the beginning of 2013, not one apartment has been marketed beyond the Green Line in Jerusalem, citing information it had obtained from the Housing and Construction Ministry. Sources at the Israel Lands Administration told the radios tation they blamed the Prime Minister's Office for the delay. The Prime Minister's Office declined to comment.

Lieberman made clear in his confirmation that while the halt to new construction hasn't been made official, no new tenders are being issued. However, work on projects already approved is continuing.

"This should be viewed as a temporary hiatus," Lieberman told a session of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday. "We have an interest in [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry succeeding. You don't always have to be right. You can also be smart."

Referring to the crisis in relations with Washington that occurred in 2010 when public housing tenders were issued for Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Lieberman said those tenders were poorly timed, while Israel's current approach is "measured and correct."

When it comes to settlement construction in the West Bank, in March Lieberman said that his Yisrael Beiteinu party would seek to prevent any renewal of a construction freeze. He told reporters at a press conference that after "seeing no results" from a freeze, he would "oppose every effort" to try again. "We are prepared to make gestures, but they cannot be unilateral," Lieberman said. "All members of Yisrael Beiteinu will oppose a freeze if such [a suggestion] is raised."