May 7 (Bloomberg) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is preventing construction of thousands of new homes for West Bank settlers, possibly in a bid to renew Middle East peace talks, both settlement advocates and opponents said.
The Israeli leader’s failure to advance new building projects that were in the Housing Ministry’s pipeline was noted in a report by the anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now, which said Netanyahu had curbed building on land Palestinians claim for a state. The pro-settler Yesha Council also said construction is being delayed.
“It’s not a freeze, but restraint,” Hagit Ofran, Peace Now’s chief settlement investigator, said in a phone interview. Netanayahu formed a government in March that contains two former heads of the Yesha Council and many other settlement proponents.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said a halt in settlement building is a condition for him to resume peace talks with Israel, which the U.S. is seeking to revive. Negotiations stalled in 2010 after Netanyahu declined to extend a 10-month freeze on new construction in the West Bank, one of the territories the Palestinians seek for their hoped-for state.
Israel Army Radio said today that Netanyahu told Housing Minister Uri Ariel to freeze the government’s West Bank construction tenders. Ariel, interviewed by the radio, declined to comment on the report, though he said he would insist the budget allots money for such construction.
“It’s clear that something is cooking in Washington and the prime minister is under pressure not to build,” Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said in a telephone interview. “Because of his coalition partners, he can’t announce a freeze so he’s trying to do it quietly.”
The housing minister told parliament’s economic committee today that thousands of settler homes were in the pipeline. “We aren’t the ones holding them up,” he said on the radio. Netanyahu, who is traveling in China, declined to comment on the reports.
Yigal Dilmoni, a Yesha spokesman, said plans for thousands of settlement homes have been held up because they haven’t received final approval.
Netanyahu promised the U.S. to curb planning and construction in the West Bank until mid-June, the Haaretz newspaper reported today, citing unidentified senior Israeli officials.
“We haven’t seen any tangible change,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said in a statement about the reports of a building slowdown. “What we need is facts on the ground, not empty words.”
The Palestinians seek to establish an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Israel occupied all three territories in 1967, and withdrew soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005.
Ofran said about 2,000 housing units are being built in West Bank settlements and about 500 in east Jerusalem.
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