- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 26, 2009

JERUSALEM | Israel on Wednesday proposed a 10-month halt to new construction in West Bank settlements as a step toward restarting Middle East peace negotiations.

Palestinians swiftly rejected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s offer because it did not include a building freeze in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, the mainly Arab sector of the city the Palestinians want as the capital of a future state.

The Obama administration welcomed the Israeli decision, but coolly.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a statement saying the Israeli decision was a helpful move toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The administration’s special envoy for Middle East peace, former Sen. George Mitchell, also welcomed the move but said it fell short of a full settlement freeze.

“But it is more than any Israeli government has done before and can help movement toward agreement between the parties,” he said, adding that he planned to return to the Middle East “in the near future” to resume his efforts to win agreement from the Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has demanded a total halt to settlement construction before peace talks can resume.

Mr. Netanyahu said the “far-reaching and painful step” was intended to “encourage resumption of peace talks with our Palestinian neighbors.”

“Israel’s government has made an important step toward peace today,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “Let us make peace together.”

The freeze applies only to new housing, meaning about 3,000 units under construction can be finished.

“We will not halt existing construction, and we will continue to build synagogues, schools, kindergartens and public buildings essential for normal life” in the settlements, Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement broadcast live from his office. About 300,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said there was nothing new in Mr. Netanyahu’s announcement, pointing to the 3,000 new housing units under construction in the West Bank.

“This is not a moratorium,” he said. “Unfortunately, we hoped he would commit to a real settlement freeze so we can resume negotiations and he had a choice between settlements and peace and he chose settlements.”

Speaking a full day before Israel officially made its proposal, Abbas adviser Nabil Abu Rdeneh said the freeze would be unacceptable if it didn’t include East Jerusalem.

“Any Israeli offer that doesn’t include Jerusalem will be rejected immediately,” he said in a telephone interview from Argentina, where he was traveling with Mr. Abbas. “No Palestinian, no Arab can cross this line.”

Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it - a step no nation has recognized. Trying to cement its claim, Israel built new quarters around East Jerusalem, where 180,000 Israelis now live. Palestinians denounce the areas as settlements, but Israel considers them neighborhoods.

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