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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sent an official letter on Sunday to the ministers of defense, housing and agriculture with an order to refrain from authorizing any construction in the West Bank without his and Defense Minister Ehud Barak's prior approval.

Olmert emphasized in the letter that the order was a follow-up to the announcement he made in the cabinet meeting of November 19, before the Annapolis peace conference, that Israel would not build additional settlements and would evacuate illegal outposts as it is obligated under the U.S.-backed road map of 2003.

Olmert wrote that "construction, new building, expansion, preparation of plans, publication of residency tenders and confiscation of land stemming from other settlement activities in the (West Bank) area will not go forward and will not be implemented without requesting and receiving in advance approval by the defense minister and the prime minister."

"These instructions do not subtract from activities carried out legally whose goals are the preservation of security or public order. The validity of the law extends until further notice or a different government decision on the matter," the letter states.

Olmert did not address construction in East Jerusalem in the letter. However, the prime minister told Kadima ministers on Sunday of his intention to send it out and said that "the sweeping order regarding all of Judea and Samaria [the biblical name for the West Bank] won't touch upon Jerusalem, but even on Jerusalem, we must act wisely and cautiously."

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reiterated on Monday the Palestinians are ready to make peace if Israel freezes all settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has strained the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. News of recently-approevd construction in the Har Homa neighborhood of East Jerusalem broke just days before negotiations opened for the first time in seven years.

"Settlements and peace do not go together," Erekat said.

However, government spokesman Mark Regev said that "these orders do not apply to construction that already has been approved. They do not apply to East Jerusalem either, because from the Israeli perspective, the West Bank is not Jerusalem, and Jerusalem is not the West Bank."

The Palestinians and a number of Arab states said the construction at Har Homa constituted a violation of Israel's commitment to freeze construction in the settlements. But Israel, which annexed East Jerusalem and regards the territory as its own, does not formally recognize the eastern part of the city as non-Israeli.

Also Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia in Jerusalem, the Israeli foreign ministry said. It gave no details of the talks.

Friction over Har Homa was only the first problem to beset the newly resumed peace talks.