Israel’s Netanyahu sets moratorium on West Bank growth

Israel imposed a 10-month moratorium Wednesday on approvals for new homes in Jewish settlements across the West Bank. But it appeared unlikely that the restriction, applauded by the Obama administration, would be enough to coax the Palestinians back to U.S.-brokered peace talks.

The unilateral decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu marked a retreat from the pro-settler policies his right-wing Likud Party has pursued for more than three decades in and out of government. In a televised speech, he called it a “painful step” aimed to “encourage resumption of peace talks with our Palestinian neighbors.”

“There is no more time to waste,” he said.

The Palestinian Authority leadership rejected his appeal, repeating its months-old condition that Israel first freeze all settlement growth on land claimed by the Palestinians in East Jerusalem as well as the West Bank.

“This is not a moratorium,” said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, noting loopholes that will allow construction to continue on nearly 3,000 previously authorized settler homes. Netanyahu “had a choice between settlements and peace, and he chose settlements.”

U.S. officials said they would nonetheless continue trying to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a move coordinated with Netanyahu’s office, said the decision “helps move forward” efforts to end decades of conflict.

President Obama’s special Middle East envoy, George J. Mitchell, called a Washington news conference at the same hour to second the Israeli leader’s appeal to the Palestinians.

Netanyahu said the moratorium would not apply to predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel captured along with the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East War; both sides claim Jerusalem as their capital. Nor would it halt construction of schools, synagogues and other public buildings he said were needed to ensure “normal life” in West Bank settlements.

Even so, the decision carried political risks in a country where the settlements, home to about 300,000 Israelis, enjoy strong right-wing support. Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, have pledged not to build new settlement communities. But, until now, none has halted new housing permits across the board.

While emphasizing Washington’s long-held view that settlements are illegitimate, Mitchell said the Israeli restrictions could have a “substantial impact” on the climate for peace talks. “It falls short of a full settlement freeze, but it is more than any Israeli government has done before and can help move toward agreement between the parties,” he said.

The coordinated messages from Jerusalem and Washington appeared to ease months of friction between the two allies over settlements and to put the onus on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as the holdout.

Obama, Clinton and other officials initially called for a full settlement freeze, but Netanyahu resisted. The administration had hoped a freeze would facilitate a new round of talks on the core issues of the conflict: borders, the status of Palestinian refugees and conflicting claims to Jerusalem. The latest U.S.-brokered talks on those issues collapsed in December.

Abbas adopted that line as well -- no freeze, no peace talks -- and has refused to back down, even as the U.S. administration retreated in recent weeks and urged the two sides to start tackling the core issues without delay.

It was that U.S. shift, Israeli officials said, that enabled Netanyahu to make what they considered a major concession.

On the other hand, Abbas despaired over what his aides called a betrayal by Washington. He announced this month that he would not seek reelection in voting scheduled next year.

Mitchell said Wednesday that the administration was undaunted by the Palestinian position and determined to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace, which he called an urgent matter of U.S. national security.

He said U.S. officials have encouraged Abbas to remain in office and change his mind about peace talks. “If you’re serious about peace, you can’t take as final the first no, the second no, or even the 100th no,” Mitchell said.

In some of his most expansive remarks to reporters since taking the job 10 months ago, the U.S. envoy said any peace talks should work within a deadline for reaching an accord. He said resolving the borders of a future Palestinian state would defuse the issue of Jewish settlements.

Settler groups and some members of Netanyahu’s party railed against the moratorium, calling it a betrayal of the prime minister’s promises to voters before taking office in March.

“The settlers are the natural army of a national government,” said Danny Danon, a Likud Party member of parliament. “Now they have been turned into the enemy.”

Netanyahu softened the opposition by promising to resume previous settlement policies when the moratorium ends. The decision was adopted by an 11-1 vote of his security Cabinet, an advisory group of senior ministers and security officials.

The Israeli government will face an even more divisive issue in coming days if indirect negotiations between Israel and the Gaza Strip’s militant Hamas rulers yield an agreement to swap hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held captive in Gaza for more than three years.

After days of rising expectations for a deal, however, Hamas officials said Wednesday that the talks were deadlocked over Israeli objections to the release of some senior militants on their proposed list.

Paul Richter in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.