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Israel approves 10-month settlement freeze

A woman walks past a solidarity tent calling for the release of captured Israeli army soldier Gilad Schalit outside the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem on Wednesday.Sebastian Scheiner / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israel will halt construction in its West Bank settlements for 10 months, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Wednesday, in an effort to restart peace talks, but Palestinians rejected the freeze as insufficient because it did not include east Jerusalem.

Shortly before Netanyahu's televised statement, his Security Cabinet approved the freeze. Officials in his office said the vote in the gathering of senior ministers and top security officials was 11-1 in favor.

Netanyahu said the "far-reaching and painful step" was designed to "encourage resumption of peace talks with our Palestinian neighbors."

In Washington, the administration of President Barack Obama welcomed the Israeli decision.

George Mitchell, the special U.S. envoy for Mideast peace, said the moratorium fell short of a full settlement freeze. But he praised the move as a positive and significant step that could prod Israel and the Palestinians toward a resumption of peace talks.

Palestinians already rejected the move before the announcement because the freeze does not include construction in Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their capital.

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

The freeze applies only to new construction, meaning housing already underway will continue. Also, Netanyahu said, only new homes are included.

"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, he said.

The U.S. stance appeared to be the key to the issue. Palestinians charge that the Obama administration has been vacillating over the settlement construction issue, first demanding a total halt, then appearing to side with Israel in agreeing to limited building.

Until Wednesday, Netanyahu resisted declaring a freeze beyond his pledge not to build new settlements. Netanyahu has said that peace talks must resume without preconditions, and issues like settlements should be discussed in negotiations.

Heavy international pressureIsrael has been under heavy international pressure to halt its construction in settlements built on captured lands claimed by the Palestinians. Some 300,000 Israelis live in the West Bank, in addition to about 180,000 people living in Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.

Netanyahu earlier floated the idea of suspending construction in existing settlements. Wednesday's offer was the first time he has given a firm timeline for how long he is willing to stop the building.

Palestinian presidential adviser Nabil Abu Rdeneh said the proposed 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 phone interview from Argentina, where he was traveling with President Mahmoud Abbas. "No Palestinian, no Arab can cross this line."

Netanyahu, a traditional ally of the settler movement, has argued that some construction should be permitted to allow for "natural growth" in their communities. His latest offer applies only to "new construction permits" — meaning that some 3,000 homes already approved for construction would not be affected.

More critically, it did not make any mention of east Jerusalem. The competing claims to the eastern part of the city — home to sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites — is the most intractable issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem its eternal capital, and Netanyahu has repeatedly said he will not agree to share control of the city.