'Settlement freeze will last 6 months'

Gov't will extend halt in construction if PA, Arab countries make expected steps, official tells 'Post.'

Maskiot construction 248.88 (photo credit: Noa Galili/Peace Now)
Maskiot construction 248.88
(photo credit: Noa Galili/Peace Now)
A moratorium on new construction in the settlements, expected in the wake of Monday's announcement of 455 newly approved housing units in the West Bank, will last for six months, with an extension dependent on whether the Palestinian Authority and neighboring Arab countries step up to the plate and deliver what is expected of them, a senior political official told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. The official's comment came a week before Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with US Mideast envoy George Mitchell to discuss the US-brokered package that is expected to lead to a renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians. Netanyahu spoke to the official over the past few days and explained both the sudden approval of the 455 homes and the soon-to-be-announced moratorium. The new construction plans in the settlements, which were announced on Monday morning, included 149 apartments for Har Gilo, 12 for Alon Shvut, 89 in Ma'aleh Adumim, 84 in Modi'in Illit, 76 in Givat Ze'ev, 25 in Kedar and 20 in Maskiot, as well as a sports park in Ariel and a school in Har Adar. Mitchell is expected to arrive on Saturday night for two days of high-level meetings in Jerusalem. At a Ma'aleh Adumim rally on Monday, MK Uri Ariel (National Union) said that the Construction and Housing Ministry had issued an order not to make any more plans for Jewish housing in east Jerusalem. But political officials said that in addition to the six-month moratorium, Netanyahu would reiterate to Mitchell that Jerusalem will not be included, and that public buildings in the settlements will be approved where necessary to enable normal life to continue. The official said Israel expected that in return for the moratorium there would be an end to incitement against Israel in the PA media and education system - although a way of measuring this still needed to be worked out - as well as significant normalization steps from the Arab world. If these steps were not forthcoming, the source intimated, the construction moratorium would end. Israel, according to the official, expected a number of Arab countries - such as Morocco, Qatar and Oman - to renew their former low-level presences in Israel, as well as allow for educational and cultural exchanges, and for Israeli airline flights over their territory. The prime minister's plans to please the settlers, the US and the Palestinians, did not mollify anyone. The Americans and the Palestinians continued to publicly demanded an immediate and total freeze. "Given the choice between making peace and making settlements, they have chosen to make settlements," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs responded on Monday by referring to an earlier statement criticizing the Israeli plans and calling for a construction halt. Right-wing politicians, including Likud MKs, Israel Beiteinu's National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau and Knesset speaker Ruby Rivlin criticized Netanyahu's plan to approve new permits and then impose a freeze on any additional ones. Danny Dayan, the head of the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, accused Netanyahu of trying to pull the wool over everyone's eyes with the new permits - the first ones that Netanyahu has issued since taking office in March. According to the Prime Minister's Office and Peace Now, no construction permits for Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria have been issued since November 2008. "It has no real political or practical significance. The negative impact of the freeze that will follow the approval of the 455 units is tenfold greater than the somewhat positive approval of these units," said Dayan. "By the way, most of them are recycled plans that were already approved by former prime minister [Ehud] Olmert," he said. "It is quite pathetic that the 2,500 units that this government is going to finish are units that Olmert built. The only thing that is new and attributable to this government is the freeze; that is regrettable," Dayan said. Hagit Ofran of Peace Now agreed that there was little new in what Defense Minister Ehud Barak had approved. Still, Peace Now's executive director Yariv Oppenheimer lashed out at the plan. Netanyahu failed in his attempt "to go on a diet," because when it comes to settlement construction, "he is eating a big meal," said Oppenheimer. All that has happened with the talk of approving new construction permits and then freezing them is that settlers can continue to build apartment units this year at the same pace as last year, he said. Oppenheimer noted that settlers would be able to finish the 2,500 apartment units now under way in the settlements as well as start 455 additional units. Out of the approvals, the two which have the most impact, according to Ofran, are in Har Gilo and Maskiot. Built in 1972, the Har Gilo settlement had only 462 residents in 2007. The approval of 149 new apartment units there more than doubles the size of the settlement, which is an enclave within a populated Palestinian area. The authorization of 20 new homes in Maskiot marks the first residential building in that area, said Ofran. Although the site, located in the northern Jordan Valley, was authorized as a settlement in the mid-1980s, no families lived there on a permanent basis until 2008, when eight moved in. Six families lived in new modular homes and another two in structures that belong to the pre-army yeshiva, also housed on that site. The construction of 20 new homes was the government's backhanded way of creating a new settlement, a move that skirted its international obligations and promises, Ofran said. AP contributed to this report.