Netanyahu Commits to Promoting Arab Construction in East Jerusalem

Commitments comes as Israel plans gestures to Palestinians in bid to deflect Quartet criticism over settlement construction.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the international community's Middle East envoy, Tony Blair, announced Friday a series of gestures that Israel will make to the Palestinians, including a promise to support Arab construction in East Jerusalem. 

"In respect of East Jerusalem, the Government of Israel has agreed to encourage the implementation of all projects that abide by municipal regulations that will improve infrastructure there for Palestinians, including in particular housing, starting with two projects in East Jerusalem," Blair announced.

The meeting between Netanyahu and Blair on Friday comes a day before a summit of the Quartet of Mideast peacemakers - the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia - for whom Blair is the envoy. The Quartet  is meeting to discuss the stalemate in peace talks between Israel and the PA. 

The package of confidence-building measures that Israel will offer the Palestinian Authority is seen as a bid to moderate the Quartet statement at the end of its deliberations, which is expected to criticize Israel for its continued construction in West Bank settlements.

"On the West Bank, there will be an extension of Palestinian Authority security presence in Area B – with 7 towns approved in principle; an agreement to fast-track the construction or reconstruction of schools and health clinics in Area C on the basis of plans submitted by the Palestinian Authority," Blair said.

In the end, Netanyahu's offer did not include measure that would enable the PA to take over land required to build the new town Rawabi. Blair added, however, "5000 Gaza-registered residents of the West Bank will be given West Bank identity cards."

Israels forum of seven senior ministers discussed the proposed gestures to the Palestinians last week. Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and minister Dan Meridor supported the gestures, while ministers Benny Begin, Moshe Yaalon, Avigdor Lieberman and Eli Yishai objected.

The gestures will also ease the blockade on Gaza, permitting more items for export and permitting a limited amount of construction materials. Blair also announced the agreement to establish "mobile desalination plants to meet Gazas needs for clean water and approval in principle for a larger permanent desalination plant."

Netanyahu agreed to the Palestinian Authority's request to renew discussions on the development of an offshore natural gas field opposite Gaza's shores, and agreed in principle for the gas to power the new power plant to be built in Gaza, which he also specifically approved.

Netanyahu said that although Israel's natural gas needs will be satisfied by its Leviathan and Tamar gas fields in ten years' time, it needs other sources of natural gas in the interim, and it is currently dependent upon supply from Egypt. Netanyahu pointed out that the profits from the Palestinian gas field will go to the Palestinian Authority, and not to Hamas, who rules Gaza.

"I am pleased at the package of measures agreed today with the Government of Israel," Blair said in response to Netanyahu's offer, but later added, "Obviously, agreement to all this is not the same as implementation."

Netanyahu began discussing the proposals with Blair last month. Blair, who recently visited Israel and met with Netanyahu, Barak and Shalom, urged the prime minister to publish details of the gestures before the Quartets meeting.

Due to its difficult international situation, Israel must do something, Blair says.

The American, Russian and European Unions foreign ministers are to take part in the Quartets meeting in Munich to discuss the complete standstill in the peace talks. The talks would also touch on the U.S. administrations apparent confusion about a solution to the crisis.

The Quartets closing statement is expected to support the World Banks prediction that the PA will complete setting up institutions in the coming months to enable it to establish a state.

The Americans have indicated to the European Union that they would not object to an especially harsh statement if the Europeans were the ones behind it, Jerusalem officials said.

Israel hopes the gestures would also encourage the Palestinians to reconsider their refusal to negotiate with Israel.

Tony Blair and Benjamin Netanyahu