Netanyahu says settlement freeze won’t be renewed
But anticipates some limits on construction
JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday that the current restrictions on West Bank settlements will not remain in place, though there will still be some limits on construction.
Israel’s 10-month freeze on new housing starts in West Bank settlements expires at the end of this month and is a key point of contention in newly launched peace talks with the Palestinians. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has threatened repeatedly to quit the talks if Israel does not renew the restrictions.
Netanyahu told Mideast envoy Tony Blair that “the Palestinians demand that after Sept. 26, there will be zero building’’ in the West Bank.
“That will not happen,’’ Netanyahu said. Israel will not build “tens of thousands of housing units that are in the pipeline, but we will not freeze the lives of the residents.’’
He did not provide details or timetables, but his statement means the ban on new housing starts would be at least partly lifted.
The prime minister had imposed a 10-month settlement slowdown in the West Bank to promote the resumption of peace talks. But several thousand housing units already being built were allowed to continue, and the measure does not apply to Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Even so, there has been a de facto halt to new construction there as well.
Over the weekend President Obama urged Netanyahu to keep the slowdown in place. Members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party and government coalition partners oppose extending the restrictions on housing starts.
Blair’s office would not immediately comment about the details of his meeting with Netanyahu.
Netanyahu is to meet with Abbas tomorrow for their first meeting since peace talks resumed at the White House earlier this month.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former senator George J. Mitchell, Obama’s special envoy to the region, will join them for the meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The scene will then shift to Jerusalem for a second day of talks on Wednesday.
Palestinians yesterday repeated their threats to leave the talks after Netanyahu’s announcement. “Our position is very clear,’’ said Husam Zomlot, spokesman. “Should the settlement construction and expansion continue, we are out.’’
Negotiator Nabil Shaath rejected one possible compromise: that Israel would halt construction in outlying settlements but allow building in settlement blocks closer to the Israel-West Bank line. Shaath said this would appear to give Israel the right to decide which settlements it will keep.
Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. They have expressed willingness to trade West Bank territory with Israel in exchange for Israeli land to allow some settlements to remain within Israeli borders after a peace deal, but no detailed agreement has been reached.
Netanyahu told Blair yesterday that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, but he would not make that a condition for continuing the negotiations.
He also questioned the Palestinian stand on settlement construction, saying “it is not logical for the Palestinians to set a precondition and threaten to abandon the talks.’’
Speaking at a meeting of his Cabinet earlier yesterday, Netanyahu said Israel recognizes the principle of two states for two peoples, the Israelis and the Palestinians, but the Palestinians speak only of two states. “I hear them saying ‘two states’ but I do not hear them recognizing two states for two peoples,’’ he said.
Palestinian leaders have refused to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people because some 20 percent of its citizens are Arabs.
In a separate development yesterday, Hamas security officials said an Israeli tank opened fire on north Gaza, killing three Palestinians and wounding five.
The Israeli military said soldiers opened fire on Palestinian militants who were about to fire a rocket-propelled grenade.