RAMALLAH // Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has restricted new settlement construction projects, a settlement watchdog said yesterday, in an apparent gesture to help the United States restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Yariv Oppenheimer, who heads Israeli-settlement watchdog Peace Now said there had been a fall in permissions for new settler homes that began with a tour of Israel and the West Bank by the US president, Barack Obama, in March. During that visit, Mr Obama called settlement growth "counterproductive to the cause of peace".
"We see there are fewer approvals for new construction in the West Bank since president Barack Obama visited," Mr Oppenheimer said.
Peace Now, which monitors all new Israeli settlement construction, said Mr Netanyahu has not approved new tenders or announcements of building plans in the settlements since he won a new term in January elections.
Citing unnamed Israeli officials, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported that Mr Netanyahu would "rein in" new settlement building until mid-June as part of a promise he made to US secretary of state John Kerry.
Mr Kerry has been trying to revive the peace process, using as an enticement a 2002 Arab League initiative that offers Israel normal relations in return for withdrawing from the Palestinian territories.
A Palestinian official from the West Bank's dominant Fatah faction reacted cautiously to reports of a settlement halt, saying it was not clear whether Mr Netanyahu was "just manoeuvring in an attempt to engage in PR and the blame game".
Palestinians demand Israel stop building settler homes before re-engaging it in peace talks, which broke down in 2010 because Mr Netanyahu refused to stop constructing settlements.
During an interview with Israel's Army Radio yesterday, the Israeli housing minister, Uri Ariel, a right-wing politician who has supported annexing the West Bank, would neither confirm nor deny that a settlement curb was in place.
"I am not commenting. A minister sits with his prime minister. If they want to go public, they have ways to go public. If they want for it to stay between them, it will stay between them," he said.
* With additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press