Israel announces 10 month halt to settlement construction in West Bank

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The prime minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, told a news conference earlier today that there will be a ten-month stop in the construction of new settlement housing in the West Bank. The Israeli cabinet approved the move by a margin of eleven to one.

File photo of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

"We have been told by our friends that once Israel takes the first meaningful steps towards peace, the Arab world and the Palestinians will follow," said Netanyahu following the cabinet's endorsement of the move. "Well, the government of Israel has taken a very big step towards peace today, and I hope the Palestinian and the Arab world will work with us to forge a new beginning for our children and theirs."

The freeze was made "out of broad national interests with the aim of encouraging negotiations with our Palestinian neighbours," he continued. "When the period of freeze ends my government will return to the previous policy of building in Judea and Samaria [the Jewish name for the West Bank]."

"This is a far-reaching and painful step [...] We hope that this decision will help launch meaningful negotiations to reach an historic peace agreement that will finally end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians," Netanyahu later said.

Under the plan, construction permits for new residential buildings would be put on hold for ten months. The government said that "natural growth" — characterised by the construction of homes by young people, who were raised in the settlements and want to build houses for their own families — would be exempt from the freeze. Parts of the West Bank that Israel annexed to the Jerusalem municipality would also be excluded from the freeze. The building of schools and places of worship, which will enable settlers to live what Netanyahu described as "normal lives", will also continue.

"We will not halt existing construction and we will continue to build synagogues, schools, kindergartens and public buildings essential for normal life in the settlements," he commented.

The prime minister added that there would be no change to Israel's existing policy on the issue of Jerusalem. "Regarding Jerusalem, our sovereign capital, our position is well-known. We do not put any restrictions on building in our sovereign capital," he said.

Several members of the Israeli cabinet expressed their disapproval at the proposal, with the conservative, ultra-Orthodox Shas party boycotting the cabinet meetings.

"I think it's a complete crumbling of Netanyahu's position and is contrary to all of his electoral promises. He promised an end to unilateral steps, and here we see him after only a few months in office giving up, even though there is no reciprocity from the Palestinians," said the head of the main settler lobby, Danny Dayan, to the Christian Science Monitor. We are 300,000 citizens, living in 150 communities. It is impossible to freeze us. I don't how it will happen, but we will break this freeze."

Many Palestinians also criticised the proposal, mainly because East Jerusalem was not included in the settlement freeze. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a Palestinian spokesman, said to the Wafa news agency that Palestine “rejects returning to peace talks without the complete cessation of settlement activities in the West Bank and Jerusalem.”

Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad also rejected the plan. "The exclusion of east Jerusalem is a very, very serious problem for us. We are not looking for the resumption of the process just for the sake of it, for it to falter a week or two down the road,"

Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordanian control, following Israel's victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The Jewish state annexed that part of the city in a move that was not recognized by the international community.

Earlier this week, on a visit to Argentina, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stepped up his campaign to put international pressure on Israel to stop building on lands that Palestinians say are their own. Abbas urged US president Barack Obama, as well as leaders of other nations that support Israel, to press the Jewish state to end its construction of settlements on occupied lands.

Netanyahu has in the past offered to restrain settlement growth, but today's announcement was the first time that he set a clear timeframe.