No new building permits have been issued for housing units in the larger West Bank settlements for the last five months, according to a spokesman for the Construction and Housing Ministry. While yellow cranes can be seen clearing earth for thousands of homes in many West Bank settlements based on prior authorization, building permits for only 260 units were issued in those communities in 2007 - and those were handed out in the first part of this year, the spokesman said. The figures support charges by settler leaders that Defense Minister Ehud Barak has refused to issue new permits for construction in West Bank settlements at a time when its population is growing at almost three times that of the rest of the country. Settlers in smaller communities have long complained about not obtaining construction permits. But this is the first time since former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was in office 12 years ago that the Defense Ministry has taken steps to halt new construction in larger settlements that would likely be retained by Israel as part of a final-status agreement with the Palestinian Authority - including Ma'aleh Adumim, Modi'in Illit and Beitar Illit. "Since Barak became the defense minister, nothing has been approved," said Shaul Goldstein, who heads the Gush Etzion Regional Council, adding that he was waiting for word on six proposed construction projects he had submitted to the Defense Ministry. In 2006 there was a 26 percent decline in the number of new building permits issued to the larger West Bank settlements, from 2,100 units in 2005 to 1,550 in 2006, the Construction and Housing Ministry spokesman said. That number then dipped by 83% in the first part of 2007 before the permits were stopped altogether, the spokesman added. The only new permits that looked like they would be authorized in these past few months were for a 48-unit housing project in Ariel, he said. Last week, the permits were denied by the Defense Ministry. The Construction and Housing Ministry spokesman clarified that his office only worked in conjunction with the Defense Ministry on permits for larger West Bank settlements. The Defense Ministry handled permits for smaller settlements by itself, the spokesman said. The Prime Minister's Office referred questions about a freeze on new construction to the Defense Ministry. Barak's spokesman said he could not comment, although a source in the Defense Ministry said that no orders to halt new construction had been issued. But a number of other sources said that Barak was not issuing building permits for settlements over the Green Line. One source added that no statement had been made to that effect so as not to preempt a public announcement of a construction freeze at the upcoming US-sponsored peace summit scheduled for later this month in Annapolis, Maryland. Still, the matter of settlement construction is due to be discussed at this week's cabinet meeting. MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima) blamed the United States for pressuring Israel to declare a sweeping halt to new construction projects in all settlements. Such a declaration was "a mistake" and was a "lose-lose proposition" for Israel in that it alienated those settlers who would be willing to compromise on the issue of territorial withdrawal, Schneller said. It created an alliance between them and the right wing of the settler movement, he said. It could also eventually break apart the coalition, he added. Building should continue in the West Bank areas that will remain in Israeli hands, Schneller said. MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu), a former legal adviser for the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, said his party knew Barak was trying to freeze construction in the settlements. "There is no doubt that we will work to prevent Barak from doing this," Rotem said. "We won't be a partner to such unilateral and strong-armed tactics. "There is no need to give the Palestinians any prize before they stop the rocket attacks," he added. Rotem said that party head MK Avigdor Lieberman planned to raise the issue in the cabinet soon, even though Barak was authorized to halt construction. A Construction and Housing Ministry spokesman said that despite the anecdotal evidence from settler leaders, he did not believe there was a need for additional homes in the settlements at this time and that, overall, new construction was down in many areas of the country. Meanwhile, building continues on already authorized projects in settlements such as Ma'aleh Adumim, Beitar Illit, Alfei Menashe and Givat Ze'ev. One such 800-unit project in Givat Ze'ev, some 4.9 kilometers from the Green Line, was authorized in the 1990s but has only now gotten under way. A project manager said some 360 units had already been sold and that in spite of rumors of a construction freeze, four people had signed housing contracts on Thursday. The manager said he had heard rumors of a freeze, but nothing more and that it didn't worry him. "It's all talk," he said. Givat Ze'ev Council head Amos Tartman said he was equally unconcerned because his settlement was within the "consensus," meaning that it was widely accepted that it would remain in Israeli hands. In the Samaria settlement of Alfei Menashe, some 2.8 km. from the Green Line, where 100 new homes are being constructed, council head Hizdai Eliezer said he was also unfazed. The residents in this mostly secular community include members of the Meretz and Labor parties because few consider this a West Bank settlement, said Eliezer. People come here more for the schools and the lifestyle than right-wing ideology, he added. But down the road, in the settlement of Karnei Shomron - which is also within the boundaries of the security barrier - construction has basically been frozen for the last four years, according to council head Herzl Ben-Ari. Some 400 young married couples from the community's second generation cannot find homes here, he said. Ben-Ari said that just two weeks ago he sat down with Construction and Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim and director-general Chaim Fialkoff to discuss a project for 100 new housing units in the settlement. According to Ben-Ari, he was told that the plans had their approval, but had been rejected by the Defense Ministry. A Construction and Ministry spokesman said he had no knowledge of either the meeting or the plans. Ariel Mayor Ran Nahman said he has also had a hard time gaining approval for construction projects. Olmert made a mistake in lumping all the settlements together into one category, he said. Ariel is not the same as the "hilltop youth," he said, referring to young activists who have manned illegal outposts throughout the West Bank. He added that he was surprised that Israel Beiteinu had agreed to stay in the government given its prohibitive policy toward settlement construction. "I call from here to [Avigdor] Lieberman to leave the government immediately," he said. Gil Hoffman, Herb Keinon, Yaakov Katz and Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.