- The Washington Times - Friday, August 21, 2009

TEL AVIV | Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has moved to ease friction with the United States by quietly blocking permits to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank, drawing fire from hard-line Israelis while preparing for a key meeting with U.S. envoy George Mitchell.

The effort to rein in construction is the latest gesture by Israel to dampen the rare public spat with the U.S. over construction in the settlements.

Though Mr. Netanyahu’s spokesperson denied that Israel had agreed to the housing freeze demanded by the Obama administration, Israeli Housing Minister Ariel Atias confirmed Wednesday that his ministry hasn’t issued any new building permits for construction in the West Bank since the Netanyahu government took office in March.

“They’re concerned about Israel’s image in Washington. Continued building could hurt Israel’s position,” said Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East analyst based in Tel Aviv. “And it could make it more difficult for Israel’s friends to promote its genuine interests, like the threat from Iran.”

Mr. Netanyahu on Thursday reprimanded a Cabinet minister who whipped up a political storm by suggesting the government oppose U.S. demands for a settlement freeze.

Channel Ten private television said Mr. Netanyahu scolded Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Yaalon “to demonstrate that there are lines that must not be crossed,” Agence France-Presse reported.

Mr. Yaalon had said: “I, for one, am not afraid of the Americans. There are issues on which one should say ‘that’s enough.’ ”

At a meeting of far-right-wing members of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party on Sunday, Mr. Yaalon insisted that Jews have a rightful claim to the biblical “Land of Israel” - a term used to include the Palestinian territories.

Mr. Netanyahu responded angrily.

“The prime minister does not accept either the tone or the substance of minister Yaalon’s statements. They do not reflect the position of the government,” his office said.

Mr. Netanyahu has kept the move to block new construction quiet because any hint of a freeze would jeopardize support from the nearly 300,000 Jewish settlers who live in the West Bank.

Mr. Netanyahu’s withdrawal of Israeli forces from the city of Hebron more than a decade ago undermined trust with the ideological core of the settlers. Now they are slamming him again.

“I cannot remember when, in the history of the Jewish people, there were Jewish leaders who were as bad to their nation as Netanyahu,” said Yaakov Katz, a parliament member from the far-right National Union party.

Peace groups say that despite the building freeze, there remains a significant tide of illegal construction in the West Bank.

Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel-Palestinian Center for Research and Information, said Israel is trying to play catch-up with the Obama administration’s demands.

“The Israelis are just deciding to play the game, but the Americans are not stupid,” Mr. Baskin said. “There is an American road-map monitor. No one is going to have the wool pulled over their eyes, but the Israelis think they can get away with it.”

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