TEL AVIV // Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, announced yesterday that his government will restrict the construction of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank for 10 months in a bid to break a deadlock in peace talks with the Palestinians.The construction limit, an idea Mr Netanyahu has previously floated without giving a firm time commitment, would not apply to Jewish neighbourhoods in regions of the West Bank that Israel annexed to its Jerusalem municipality after taking over the territory during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
It would also not include the building of houses already underway or the construction of public buildings such as schools and community centres. It appeared far from certain whether the move, which has long been anticipated and which has been offered to the Palestinians through US mediators, would spur peace negotiations because it fell far short of Palestinian demands for a complete halt to settlement expansion in all occupied territory.
Mr Netanyahu, speaking in a televised press conference, said: "This is not an easy step. We are taking it ... in a bid to encourage the resumption of the peace process in order to reach peace with our Palestinian neighbours." Mr Netanyahu added: "I hope that the Palestinians and the Arab world will be wise enough to take advantage of this opportunity in order to advance on the path of peace."Once the 10-month period is over, he said, "my government will return to the construction policy of previous governments" in the West Bank.
Even before the proposal was made public and as its emergence appeared in media reports, Palestinian officials were quick to reject it. Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, which holds sway in the West Bank, told journalists in Ramallah: "We are not looking for the resumption of the [peace] process for the sake of it. This is not new. The exclusion of Jerusalem continues to be a major issue for us."
Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, said: "Any return to negotiations must be on the basis of a complete settlement freeze, and in Jerusalem foremost." Palestinians want their future state to include the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as the capital.Israel's move would include a "suspension" of new residential building permits and residential housing starts, according to a statement from Mr Netanyahu's office. It said the partial moratorium would take place in "Judea and Samaria", the biblical names for the West Bank, indicating that it would not include Jerusalem.
According to the statement, the prime minister told members of his so-called security cabinet: "This step will promote Israel's broad national interests. It allows us to place a simple fact before the world: the government of Israel wants to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians, is taking practical steps in order to do so and is very serious in its intentions to promote peace."Mr Netanyahu has refused to comply with calls by the Palestinians and by the United States, Israel's staunchest ally, for a complete settlement freeze, saying the so-called "natural growth" of settler families must be accommodated.
However, it is probable that his announcement was co-ordinated with the administration of Barack Obama, the US president, who has softened his stance on the settlement issue recently by calling for Israeli restraint instead of a freeze. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, angered Palestinians and Arab officials this month by praising Mr Netanyahu's offer on the settlements as "unprecedented".
Although his offer is far from a freeze, Mr Netanyahu will probably still face opposition to his plan from the Israeli Right that helped bring him to power last March. Daniel Hershkowitz, a cabinet minister whose Jewish Home party supports settlement expansion, criticised the fact that the suspension was not brought to a full governmental vote. "A right-wing government needs to help settlements and not strangle them."
Yariv Levin, a legislator in Mr Netanyahu's Likud party, lambasted the building limit as an "anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist move". Close to half a million Jews live on West Bank land captured by Israel in 1967, residing in settlements that are deemed by the World Court and the European Union as illegal under international law. Also, yesterday, a senior Hamas official said that its talks with Israel over a prisoner swap have hit a snag over some of the top militants the Islamic group wants freed, the Associated Press reported.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, said a deal is unlikely in coming days to release the Israeli soldier Sgt Gilad Schalit, who was seized by Gaza militants in 2006. He said the German mediator shuttling between the sides has presented an alternative list of names provided by Israel, and that Hamas leaders are studying it. email@example.com