Report: Israel PM freezes West Bank settlement tenders

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered a freeze on publishing tenders for new West Bank settler homes to avoid hampering U.S. efforts to renew peace talks, army radio reported on Tuesday.

Israel’s Peace Now settlement watchdog also said there had not been any tenders for new West Bank construction published since the start of the year.

Netanyahu had pledged to push ahead with the building of thousands of new settler homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem if re-elected -- in a retaliatory move after the Palestinians won upgraded U.N. status in November, to the ire of Israel and the United States.

But army radio said Netanyahu had gone back on his pledge by communicating news of the tender freeze to Housing Minister Uri Ariel a few days ago.

Netanyahu’s decision to freeze the tenders was linked to efforts led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to relaunch peace talks with the Palestinians, according to the radio.

And Haaretz newspaper reported Israeli officials as saying that Netanyahu had promised Kerry he would “rein in” construction of settlements until mid-June.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in April decided to refrain from action against Israel through the U.N. and other international bodies until around June to give peace talks a chance to resume, an official said at the time.

Neither Netanyahu’s office nor the housing ministry would comment on Tuesday’s army radio report.

Ariel, himself a settler, is number two in the far-right Jewish Home party -- the third-largest ruling coalition member -- which lobbies for increased Israeli construction on land seized during the 1967 Six Day War.

“I have no intention of revealing details of my discussions with the prime minister,” Ariel told the radio, which said the tenders were related to construction in the major settlement blocs that house most of the 360,000 Israelis living in the West Bank.

Jewish Home MP Ayelet Shaked said that Ariel had “prepared thousands of tenders for construction in Judaea and Samaria” -- the biblical term for the West Bank.

But she said the tenders “must be signed by the prime minister and for some reason it hasn’t happened”.

Peace Now’s Hagit Ofran told AFP the watchdog had seen “no new tenders published for settlement construction in the West Bank since the start of the year” which are “normally issued every three months”.

“This is not a settlement freeze because construction in the settlements is continuing, but you could say it is a show of restraint by Netanyahu,” she said.

Netanyahu is likely to face fierce opposition from his housing minister.

Ariel had warned during an April 30 meeting with Netanyahu that Jewish Home would oppose the 2013 state budget unless it contained money for further construction, according to an article by the Israel HaYom freesheet last week.

“I explained to (Netanyahu) that if the 2013 budget does not contain funding for the construction projects” that were approved after the Palestinians’ upgraded status, “Jewish Home will... oppose the budget until the promised funding solution is found,” he told the paper.

The budget is to be presented next week.

Jewish Home and hardliners from Netanyahu’s Likud had been anticipating a new bout of construction after the January elections which saw former defense minister Ehud Barak replaced by Moshe Yaalon, another ardent settlement advocate.

The defense minister also plays a key role in advancing settlements, with the power to approve new construction and to sanction the removal of unauthorized settler outposts.

Just weeks-old direct peace talks broke off late September 2010, after Israel refused to renew a freeze on settlement construction.

Since then, the Palestinians have said they will not return to negotiations while Israel continues to build on land they want for a future state.

Israel has said it is ready for an immediate resumption of talks, but insists it will only talk if there are no such pre-conditions.

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