JERUSALEM – Israel has quietly moved to halt new housing projects in the West Bank, while outwardly rebuffing U.S. pressure to stop construction in its settlements, Israeli government officials, peace activists and settlers said Tuesday.
It isn’t the full settlement freeze the Obama administration has been demanding, but it indicates that Israel is seeking a compromise in what has become a rare public disagreement with the U.S., its most important ally.
The government has issued no new construction permits for months, the officials, activists and settlers said, a rare agreement among elements that are usually bitter enemies – evidence that this is a new policy aimed at defusing the settlement squabble.
Housing Minister Ariel Atias confirmed that there have been no new government building offers since November. Interviewed on Channel 10 TV Tuesday evening, Atias said it was part of an effort to reach an agreement with the U.S.
“There is a given situation which is a waiting period,” he said. “That’s a fact, and it can’t be denied.” He refused to call it a building freeze.
Earlier, Netanyahu’s office issued a statement saying, “There is not and has never been an agreement among the prime minister, defence minister and housing minister on freezing new construction” in the West Bank.
That denial could be read different ways, since “new construction” continues full force in the settlements, with thousands of housing units in various stages of completion. The government’s seems to be aiming at getting at least tacit U.S. approval to finish projects that have been started, while holding up initial permits for new ones.
That is considerably less than the Obama administration has been demanding – a total freeze in construction in the West Bank settlements, where about 300,000 Israelis live among about 2.5 million Palestinians. Another 180,000 Israelis live in east Jerusalem neighbourhoods built since Israel captured the Arab section in the 1967 war.
Their numbers are rising at the rate of about 5 per cent a year, and the government insists it must build housing to accommodate the increase. Critics charge it’s the other way around – the new, relatively cheap housing attracts more Israelis to the settlements.
Palestinians charge that Israeli settlement construction is strangling the West Bank, which they want for their eventual state along with the Gaza Strip, evacuated by Israel in 2005, and east Jerusalem.
Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes settlements and tracks their construction, says the government has not issued new plans for West Bank settlement projects since Netanyahu took office on March 31.
According to Hagit Ofran of the group’s Settlement Watch program, the last new tender for government construction in the West Bank was issued in November 2008, when Ehud Olmert was still premier.
Ron Nachman, the mayor of the settlement of Ariel, with a population of 18,000, said the government was not allowing any new construction. He said that Netanyahu, elected on a hawkish platform with support from settlers, was now implementing dovish policies that are crippling Ariel and other settlements.
But Dror Etkes, who tracks settlements for the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, said there was no sign of a slowdown in the actual construction.
“In practice, on the ground, construction is continuing, and the pace is even picking up,” Etkes said.
Since President Barack Obama took office in January, the settlement issue has been the main public face of exchanges, some of them icy, between Israel and the U.S., and repetition of the mantras about “disagreements among friends” have not eased the tense atmosphere.
On the other hand, Washington has not hinted at sanctions against Israel, and critics of the focus on the settlement issue contend that it would disappear, along with many other Palestinian complaints, if the two sides could agree on a border.
Criticism of Obama’s pressure on Israel to halt settlement construction came Tuesday from a former election rival – Republican Mike Huckabee, who is visiting Israel as a guest of a pro-settler group.
Huckabee, who campaigned unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for president in 2008 and is said to be considering another run in 2012, toured contentious settlement points and told reporters that Jews should be allowed to live wherever they want in the West Bank, opposing creation of a Palestinian state “in the middle of the Jewish homeland.”
The West Bank is part of the biblical land of Israel.
“Don’t ask the Jewish people, whose homeland it is, to completely yield over their ability to live within the context of their country,” Huckabee said.
Associated Press writer Steven Gutkin contributed to this report.