Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry "to rein in" construction of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem until mid-June, senior Israeli officials said on Tuesday. According to the officials, Netanyahu made the promise in light of U.S. efforts to renew negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Army Radio reported on Tuesday morning that Netanyahu met with Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel several days ago, and instructed him to put a hold on publication of new government tenders for construction of 3,000 housing units in the settlements and Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The Prime Minister's Office declined to comment.
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Speaking at a closed meeting on Monday, Netanyahu insisted has not issued an order to freeze construction in the settlements or in East Jerusalem. The prime minister stressed that the tenders are soon to be released, crediting the delay to a "technical malfunction and an error in the tenders' wording."
Ariel rejected Netanyahu's explanation, saying that no progress has been made in the construction due opposition from the government.
"We have in our hands a plan to market 2,500 housing units that can be implemented as soon as today," the housing minister said. "We are not responsible for the delay, and neither is the Finance Ministry."
Ariel made the remarks during a meeting of the Knesset's Economic Affairs Committee and in an interview with Israel Radio, after initially refusing to comment on the issue.
Knesset Member Ariel Atias (Shas), the former housing minister, went as far as to claim that, in effect, a construction moratorium has been imposed on Jerusalem.
"A sweeping order has been issued by the prime minister and National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror, putting all construction matters in Jerusalem on hold," he said.
Seeking to prevent blunder
Netanyahu decided to move forward with these tenders in late November in response to the successful Palestinian bid for non-member observer state status recognition at the United Nations. The tenders included planning and construction in E-1, between Maa'leh Adumim and Jerusalem, but until today they have not moved forward: Planning procedures in E-1 have not been advanced and discussions on East Jerusalem construction have not been renewed.
Netanyahu's request in the meeting with Minister Ariel is part of the "restraint" policy he decided on back in March, two weeks before U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Jerusalem. The Prime Minister's Office decided then to postpone meetings of the planning and construction committees or announcing tenders for settlement construction.
Netanyahu wished to avoid a repeat of the embarrassment that occurred during Vice President Joseph Biden's visit in 2010, when plans by the Jerusalem District Planning and Construction Committee to build 1,600 new housing units in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in East Jerusalem were announced.
On March 23, a day after Obama has left Israel, Kerry met with Netanyahu in Jerusalem and the two discussed Kerry's efforts to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Kerry asked both sides to give him two months in order to hear their positions and try to bring them closer to restarting negotiations. He also requested both sides refrain from provocative or unilateral moves. In response, the Palestinians pledged to "freeze" their unilateral moves at the United Nations.
In his meeting with Netanyahu, Kerry did not request a settlement construction freeze, but asked that Israel "restrain" constructions. Senior Israeli officials say Netanyahu agreed to wait 8-12 weeks – until mid-June – and refrain from publishing new settlement construction tenders.
A senior U.S. administration official declined to confirm reports that Netanyahu committed to "rein in" construction, yet said that the reason there is no new construction has to do with facts on the ground: "The fact is that since Obama's visit there are no new announcements and everything is quiet on the ground when it comes to settlement construction," he said. "Everyone is on their best behavior and don’t want to be blamed for preventing the peace talks from being re-launched."