August 18, 2009 7:36 pm

Israel puts brake on West Bank settlements

The government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said on Tuesday that it had stopped granting permission for new housing projects in the occupied West Bank in an effort to reduce tensions with the US on settlement expansion.

An Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “Since the advent of the Netanyahu government [in March], no new housing tenders have been issued.”

The move was welcomed by Barack Obama, US president, on Tuesday night who said it offered “movement in the right direction”.

The Israeli official confirmed earlier statements made by Ariel Atias, the minister of housing, who told an Israeli radio station that the government was in a “waiting period” in order to try to reach an understanding with the US on settlements. Still, he added the move was not a formal settlement freeze.

Mr Obama has repeatedly urged Israel to halt all settlement activity in territory that the Palestinians want as part of their future state as a crucial step in the revival of stalled Mideast peace talks. Mr Netanyahu, whose predominantly hardline coalition partners oppose curtailing construction, has so far resisted the demand, saying the “natural” growth of families in the occupied territory must be accommodated.

The issue has led to the most serious clash in at least a decade between Israel and its staunchest ally.

However, Mr Netanyahu is currently trying to reach a compromise with the US on the issue and is due to meet George Mitchell, the top US envoy to the Middle East, in London next week to continue negotiations. On Tuesday, the prime minister’s office also denied a report in the Israeli media that Mr Netanyahu, Mr Atias and Ehud Barak, the defence minister, have jointly decided to freeze construction in the settlements until early 2010.

Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement group, played down the significance of Mr Netanyahu’s halt of issuing new bids for construction. Peace Now said that government-sponsored construction only accounts for some 40 per cent of all West Bank building while the rest was funded by settler groups and non-governmental organisations.

It also said that currently, more than 1,000 homes were undergoing construction in the West Bank.

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