JERUSALEM – Israel imposed a 10-month moratorium Wednesday on approvals for new homes in Jewish settlements across the West Bank. But it appeared doubtful that the restriction, applauded by the Obama administration, would be enough to coax the Palestinians back to U.S.-brokered peace talks.
The 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.”
The Palestinian Authority leadership rejected his appeal, repeating its months-old condition that Israel 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 of nearly 3,000 previously authorized settler homes. Netanyahu “had a choice between settlements and peace, and he chose settlements.”
U.S. officials nonetheless said they would keep 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 Barack 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 assure “normal life” in West Bank settlements.