Israel halts construction in east Jerusalem
JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel's prime minister has effectively frozen new Jewish construction in east Jerusalem, municipal officials said Monday, reflecting the need to mend a serious rift with the U.S. and get Mideast peace talks back on track.
The move comes despite Benjamin Netanyahu's repeated assertion he would never halt construction in east Jerusalem and risks angering hard-liners in his government. One lawmaker from Netanyahu's Likud Party warned the governing coalition could collapse over the issue.
Still, the de facto freeze appeared to offer the promise of reviving peace efforts derailed after Israel announced plans for a major Jewish housing development during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden last month.
That set off the worst diplomatic dispute between the U.S. and Israel in decades - and prompted the Palestinians to call off a new round of U.S.-brokered peace talks.
The quiet halting of east Jerusalem housing approvals coincides with signs that those talks are now about to start - and could help explain recent U.S. statements stressing America's close ties to Israel.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signaled Monday he was ready to start indirect talks with Israel after weeks of hesitation. Washington has stepped up efforts in recent days to coax Abbas to agree to the talks, with President Barack Obama's envoy as go-between.
Speaking to Israel's Channel 2 TV, Abbas said he would present the U.S. proposal to the Arab League this week and the Palestinians "hope that the reply will be positive."
Obama, meanwhile, offered assurances of Washington's unshakable commitment to Israel's security and determination to achieve a comprehensive Middle East peace. He made the remarks during an impromptu meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the White House, Obama spokesman Robert Gibb said.
Word of a de facto freeze on east Jerusalem construction came from municipal officials and a construction executive, who told The Associated Press that the committee that approves such projects had not met since March 9 - the day Israel announced its contentious plan to build 1,600 new housing units in east Jerusalem.
It was not clear if the halt to approvals constituted a genuine moratorium or how long it would last, and Israeli government officials would not confirm any kind of freeze.