Is there a quiet settlement freeze coming as part of a renewed diplomatic push by the Obama administration to get Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table? According to Peace Now’s count, since U.S. President Obama's visit on March 20, there have been no new announcements on new construction in settlements, neither tenders nor new plans approved.
On Tuesday afternoon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied a report on Army Radio which said he had instructed Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) to freeze government tenders for the construction of new housing units in Judea and Samaria. The reported move, denied by Netanyahu, comes amid a recently renewed American push to jumpstart peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, which has seen Justice Minister Tzipi Livni meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington for discussions.
Netanyahu said the Army Radio report was wrong, and that construction tenders had been proposed but had been found to contain errors, and so needed to be resubmitted. Israel Radio quoted an official traveling with Netanyahu as saying there had been no change in government policy on building in Judea and Samaria.
According to Army Radio, Netanyahu instructed Ariel to freeze all construction tenders despite having made an election campaign promise to build hundreds of new housing units in Judea and Samaria in response to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N. General Assembly last November.
Construction has not progressed over the last six months, and just last week, Ariel announced that if the promise was not fulfilled, his party would withdraw its support for the national budget, which is currently pending approval.
A government official told Army Radio recently that "most of the tenders are ready and can be issued at any minute," but the recent visit by U.S. President Barack Obama, and Kerry's efforts to renew the peace process, are apparently preventing the projects from going forward.
Army Radio quoted Habayit Hayehudi MK Ayelet Shaked as saying that "the Housing and Construction Ministry prepared tenders it is ready to issue for settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria. They require the signature of the prime minister, and for some reason, it is not happening. It is too bad. There is a lot of housing ready to be marketed."
In an interview with Army Radio, Ariel refused to confirm the report, but reiterated that he would not support the national budget if construction was frozen.
"I don't publicize things that I do with the prime minister," he said. But he added that "we came to an agreement that if there wasn't representation in the new state budget for construction in all of Israel, then we will consider our support for the budget. "
Referring to Netanyahu's denial of the Army Radio report, Ariel said, "Ask Netanyahu why 2,500 housing units are not being approved."
"I have not been a member of the Yesha Council [the umbrella body of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria] for several years, but I trust everything they do," he said. "I hope that they will act in the area for the advancement of the security and welfare of Israel. As housing and construction minister, I am committed to presenting results, and that is what I am doing."
Meanwhile, Yesha Council Chairman Avi Roeh has asked to speak to the prime minister, who is currently visiting China.
"A halt on construction tenders in Judea and Samaria goes against the prime minister's declarations six months ago," Roeh said on Tuesday. "Promises have to be honored; cabinet ministers are also held accountable. We demand that the prime minister and the ministers to approve and issue the tenders immediately."
The Palestinians have repeatedly demanded that Israel freeze all settlement construction as a precondition to return to the negotiating table. In 2009, under U.S. pressure, Netanyahu declared a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction, but the move failed to revive the stalled peace talks.
Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, also in China, told local reporters that his authority had already agreed to Kerry's parameters for renewed negotiations with Israel, and that now it was Israel's turn to present a map of its borders and to accept the two-state solution to the conflict.