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AP: "Israeli officials: New West Bank projects frozen"

Source: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5ioi_0jtO9RjMwPNRoXNCndRPRq3gD9A581EO0 (link has expired)

By MATTI FRIEDMAN (AP) - 8/18/09

JERUSALEM -- Israel has quietly stopped approving new building projects in the West Bank while publicly still refusing U.S. demands for an official settlement freeze, government officials said Tuesday.

President Barack Obama's administration has pushed Israel to shelve all settlement construction to allow peace talks to go forward, a demand Israel has said it cannot accept. The issue has grown into a rare public disagreement between the two close allies.

 

However, several government officials said Tuesday that Israel has decided to temporarily stop green-lighting new projects because of all the international pressure.

The move falls short of the U.S. demand because it doesn't amount to a full freeze -- projects approved in the past are still being built, and groups tracking settlements say the pace of construction in the settlements has not slowed.

Still, it could be an indication Israel is seeking a compromise with Washington over the issue.

Officially, Israel has said some construction must continue to allow for the growth of settler families.

The decision to temporarily shelve new construction was made jointly by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Housing Minister Ariel Atias, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because no formal ruling has been announced.

Kobi Bleich, a spokesman for Atias -- the official directly responsible for signing off on government construction -- would not confirm or deny the report.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said he had no immediate comment.

Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes settlements and tracks their construction, says the government has not issued new plans for West Bank settlement projects since Netanyahu took power in March.

According to Hagit Ofran of the group's Settlement Watch program, the last new tender for government construction in the West Bank was issued in November, 2008, when former prime minister Ehud Olmert was still in power.

But housing units approved in the past remain under construction, mostly in large settlements that Israel hopes to keep under any peace deal, Ofran said.

Ron Nachman, the mayor of the settlement of Ariel, with a population of 18,000, said the government was not allowing any new construction. He said that Netanyahu, elected on a hawkish platform with support from settlers, was now implementing dovish policies that are crippling Ariel and other settlements.

If the policies continue "the government's days will be numbered," Nachman said.

But Dror Etkes, who tracks settlements for the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, said there was no sign of a slowdown on the ground and that thousands of settlement units were still being built.

Some of the construction was government-funded building approved in the past, some was private construction, and some was being carried out illegally, he said.

"In practice, on the ground, construction is continuing and the pace is even picking up," Etkes said.