Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared Tuesday evening that the 10-month moratorium on new housing starts in the West Bank is a one-time, temporary deal, and that building will begin anew once this period ends.
He spoke as civil administration inspectors spread across the West Bank for the second day in a row to enforce the building freeze declared last week. Since Monday, the inspectors have visited 90 settlements and handed out 64 stop-work orders.
The moratorium has infuriated the settlers, who fear it is a death knell to the future of their communities in Judea and Samaria.
Addressing an economics conference at Airport
City near Ben-Gurion Airport, Netanyahu sought to assuage settler fears.
"This is a one-time and temporary decision," he said. "Just as was written in the security cabinet decision, and just as I have made clear in both public and private meetings, we will go back to building at the end of the suspension."
Netanyahu said that the future of the settlements in Judea and Samaria would be determined only through final-status peace negotiations, "and not one day sooner. We need to start the peace negotiations in order to complete them, and I hope the Palestinians will stop their refusal to begin talks. They need this peace no less than we do."
The prime minister, who has come under sharp criticism from the settlement leadership and those on the right within his own party, took the opportunity to praise the Jews living beyond the Green Line, saying "they are an integral part of our people - they contribute, they serve in the army, they volunteer, they are our brothers and our sisters."
Netanyahu said the decision to suspend construction, except for public structures and some 3,000 units already underway, was taken with the "widest national interests" in mind, as well as with the hope that this would re-start peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat immediately rejected Netanyahu's statements.
"Netanyahu never stopped building settlements so nothing has changed," he told The Associated Press.
But even as he lauded the settlers, Netanyahu has yet to reschedule a meeting with them initially set for Tuesday. It was canceled due to his brief illness, which also forced him to bow out of a trip to Germany this week, and as of press time, had not yet been rescheduled.
Netanyahu has not held a formal meeting with the heads of the (Yesha) Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip since he took office at the end of March.
Some settler leaders did meet Tuesday with the cabinet secretary and the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office.
Earlier this week, Uzi Keren, who had served as the settlement adviser under former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon, quit.
It had been expected that he would leave with Olmert, but he had agreed to stay on until Netanyahu found a replacement for him. When that process dragged on, Keren decided to step down. The post is vacant at this time and the Prime Minister's Office could not say when it would be filled.
In a farewell interview Keren gave to Army Radio on Tuesday, he said he believed that evacuations would eventually follow the freeze.
Netanyahu, he said, had no choice but to issue the freeze.
"It's a tactical maneuver, not a strategic one," said Keren. "You cannot sit on every hilltop. You have to have two states for two peoples."
The moment that Netanyahu spoke of recognizing a Palestinian state, a freeze had to follow, he said. Still, he said, the government should have been more selective and imposed a moratorium only in places that it knew it must relinquish in a final-status arrangement with the Palestinians. For example, he said, the government should have refused to halt building in Gush Etzion.
Keren warned that the more time dragged on, the harder it would become to evacuate settlers from their homes.
The 2005 withdrawal from Gaza was difficult, he said, and the demolition of nine homes at the Amona outpost in 2006 was even harder.
He urged the government to find a way to come
to an agreement with the settlers with regard to the measures it must now take in Judea and Samaria.
But far from looking to engage in dialogue, settlers have sworn to fight the moratorium.
The settlers' council on Monday urged the settlements to bar inspectors from entering their communities and not to cooperate with them.
It reissued this message on Tuesday, as inspectors visited 40 West Bank settlements, angering their residents.
Gush Etzion Regional Council head Shaul Goldstein sped to the Har Gilo settlement when he heard that the inspectors were on their way. His plan to keep the gate locked was thwarted when the inspectors failed to arrive.
"Had they come," he warned, "we would not have let them in."
He said that the construction in the small
community located near Jerusalem was legal and that what was illegal was the moratorium which was approved only by the security cabinet, but not by the government or the Knesset.
Binyamin Regional Council head Avi Ro'eh, who met the civil administration inspectors at the gates of the Kochav Ya'akov settlement, said that what upset him was that the policy targeted Jews only - a move that reminded him of the nation's long struggle with anti-Semitism. Palestinians in the West Bank may continue building, but only Jews may not, he complained.
After they were held up at the entrance to Kochav Ya'akov for some 15 minutes, the inspectors were, nevertheless, allowed into the settlement.
They were able to access most of the communities even though they were met with some resistance in Kiryat Arba, Karnei Shomron, Shavei Shomron, Revava and Tapuach.
Settlers claimed they had blocked the inspectors from entering Har Bracha, Yitzhar, Itamar and Elon Moreh.
Fourteen stop-work orders were issued in the settlements of Mitzpe Yericho, Mitzpe Shalem, Beit Horon, Halamish, Kochav Ya'akov, Nahliel, Psagot, Givat Ze'ev, Carmel, Pnei Hever, Ma'aleh Shomron, Karnei Shomron, and Peduel.
David Ha'ivri, director of the Shomron Liaison Office said: "We have been receiving calls from supporters from around the world who are interested in investing in building homes in Samaria to show their support and to make a clear statement to the world that the Land of Israel is for the Jewish people and will stay in our hands forever."
As part of the settlers' continued efforts to combat the moratorium, a group which calls itself "Mothers for a Normal Life" plans to hold a conference to protest the freeze in Efrat on Wednesday evening.
In spite of the protests, Defense Minister Ehud
Barak stressed on Tuesday that the moratorium
would be fully implemented.
"Government decisions must be obeyed and will be fully implemented, in a way that will ensure as much dialogue with the settlers as possible," Barak said.
He spoke after meeting with reservists at the Judea and Samaria Division headquarters ahead of a session with the IDF commanders charged with reinforcing the edict to halt building.
"The Judea and Samaria leadership is responsible, patriotic and Zionist, and has withstood many ordeals. I believe and hope we shall overcome this ordeal, while executing the government's decisions," Barak added.
AP contributed to this report.