Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday withdrew a plan to build 20,000 more settler homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to an official statement.
Anti-settlement group Peace Now had said earlier that the Housing Ministry had issued tenders late last month for drawing up construction plans, but that no building work was imminent.
“With tenders for planning, what we are seeing is a very early stage that can open the door for construction not in the short term, but several years down the road,” Peace Now said in a statement.
But it said the potential projects for 19,786 housing units in the West Bank and 4,000 in East Jerusalem were an important indicator of where the government stands on future building, even as it engages the Palestinians in land-for-peace talks.
Peace Now said one plan called for construction in a highly sensitive area sandwiched between Jerusalem and Ramallah, the Palestinian seat of government, and could impede any efforts to reach an agreement on the future of the holy city.
“The issuing of tenders for planning is unequivocal evidence that Netanyahu intends to prevent the real chances of a
negotiated agreement and a two-state solution,” Peace Now said.
It said the tenders included planning for 1,200 additional housing units for the E-1 area near Jerusalem, where under U.S. pressure Israel has suspended previous projects to build more than 3,000 settler homes.
Israeli political sources said Netanyahu, after learning of the new plans for E-1, swiftly ordered they also be frozen, according to Reuters.
In a statement issued late Tuesday evening, Netanyahu said the plan would make “no contribution” to settlements and would only hurt the cause, Associated Press reported.
He said the announcement had caused “unnecessary conflict” with the international community just at a time when Israel is trying to rally pressure to halt Iran’s nuclear program.
The statement said his Housing Minister Uri Ariel had accepted the request.
The Palestinians claim the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in 1967, for an independent state. They say Israeli settlement construction on the lands they claim is a sign of bad faith.
More than 500,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. The international community, including the U.S., rejects settlements as illegal or illegitimate.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the White House had been caught off guard by the earlier announcement to study settlement expansion.
“We were surprised by these announcements, and are currently seeking further explanation from the government of Israel,” she said.
“Our position on settlements is quite clear - we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity. We’ve called on both sides to take steps to create a positive atmosphere for the negotiations,” she added.
(With Reuters and Associated Press)
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