Netanyahu freezes settlement, tells officials to stay mum on Iran ahead of U.S. trip


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered a halt to the construction of new homes in disputed Arab east Jerusalem to avoid conflict in an upcoming visit to the White House, Yediot Aharonot daily reported Friday.

“Netanyahu is trying to avoid any Israeli measure that might provoke the anger of the American administration” during a visit he and President Shimon Peres will make to Washington next week, the newspaper said.

Concretely, he has asked the housing ministry to freeze all bidding on new projects in east Jerusalem, particularly in the settlements of Gilo and Pisgat Zeev.

The order was also given to the interior ministry, which is responsible for approving any new construction in Jerusalem, it added.

Settlement construction in West Bank

On Wednesday, an Israeli committee approved construction of 500 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Shilo and retroactively legalized more than 200 built without permits, a spokesman said.

The plans provoked an angry reaction from the Palestinian Authority, which said the aim was to destroy any chance of a two-state solution to the decades-long conflict.

Israeli settlement construction has proved a consistent sticking point in talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Direct talks that began in September 2010 quickly broke down over the issue.

Israel declined to renew a partial settlement freeze that expired in 2010, and the Palestinians say they will not hold talks while the Jewish state continues to build on land they want for their future state.

The Palestinians want east Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state, and furiously denounce new settlement construction in the eastern sector of the city.

Some Israeli analysts suspect Interior Minister Eli Yishai, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, might attempt to undermine any diplomatic progress over the Palestinian question by announcing new housing construction, Yediot said.

In March 2010, Israel sparked the ire of the U.S. administration by announcing, during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, that 1,600 new homes would be built in the east Jerusalem quarter of Ramat Shlomo.

Israel captured the West Bank, Golan Heights, east Jerusalem and Gaza during the 1967 Six-Day War, and considers all of Jerusalem its “eternal, undivided” capital.

Ministers must not to talk about Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered his ministers not to speak publicly about Iran, officials said Friday, in an apparent attempt at damage control before his U.S. trip.

The Prime Minister’s bureau sent text messages this week to cabinet ministers, asking them to keep quiet about Iran unless they had his express permission, an Israeli official said.

Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, the official said Netanyahu made such requests “about ten times” in the past few years, following reports of assassinations of Iranian scientists and other apparent attacks on Iran’s nuclear research facilities. Many of those incidents are largely believed to be the work of Israeli agents.

Israeli Information Minister Yuli Edelstein said Netanyahu had previously told ministers in his Likud faction that “there is too much fuss and talk about (Iran) and that he would very much appreciate if ministers wouldn’t express themes on the subject.”

Israel views Iran as an existential threat, citing frequent Iranian calls for Israel’s destruction, its support for violent anti-Israel militant groups and its long range missile program.

Both Israel and the U.S. both believe that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. But differences have emerged over how to stop Iran. The U.S. has said that tough economic sanctions are the best tactic, while Israel has hinted that military action might be needed. The Americans have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to an Israeli attack.

Netanyahu and Peres will meet separately with U.S. President Barack Obama for discussions expected to be dominated by Iran.

Israel is also under a great deal of U.S. and European pressure to refrain from attacking Iran’s nuclear site and to allow time for international sanctions over Tehran’s suspect nuclear program to bite.

Continued clashes

Recently, Jerusalem has become a hotspot for clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police.

The clashes broke out between police and “hundreds” of Palestinian stone throwers at the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, a police spokeswoman said on Friday.

“They threw stones towards the Maghrebi Gate and police went onto the plaza,” spokeswoman Luba Samri told AFP. “There are now hundreds of people throwing stones.”

On Thursday, Israeli police arrested three Palestinians in Jerusalem’s Old City compound after confrontations with Jewish visitors, a police spokesman told AFP.

“There was a group of Jewish visitors on the Temple Mount,” Micky Rosenfeld said, referring to the plaza that houses both Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock mosques.

“They were on a regular visit, and Palestinians were shouting at them and making abusive calls. Police detained three people at the scene in order to prevent confrontations of the sort we saw this week,” he added.

On Tuesday, Palestinian protesters hurled stones and shoes at police escorting Jewish and Christian visitors inside the flashpoint compound, leaving one police officer slightly wounded. Two Palestinians were arrested, police said.

And on Sunday, police used tear gas to disperse Palestinians who were throwing stones inside the compound, arresting 18 people.

The walled compound, which is known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), is home to the third holiest site in Islam.

The plaza is also venerated by Jews as the Temple Mount, the site where King Herod’s temple once stood before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

It is the holiest site in Judaism, but Jews are forbidden from worshipping there.