Amy Teibel
Associated Press
April 27, 2010 - 12:00am

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.

However, two city councilmen and an engineer who oversees a major east Jerusalem construction project confirmed the procedures for approving new housing have been put on hold since the Biden incident.

"The government ordered the Interior Ministry immediately after the Biden incident to not even talk about new construction for Jewish homes in east Jerusalem," said Meir Margalit, a city councilman who said the information came from top Jerusalem officials intimately involved with construction projects.

"It's not just that building has stopped: The committees that deal with this are not even meeting anymore," said Margalit, of the dovish Meretz Party.

Another city councilman, Meir Turujamen, who sits on the Interior Ministry committee that gives final approval to building plans, said his panel has not met since the Biden visit. It used to meet weekly, he said.

"I wrote a letter about three weeks or a month ago asking (Interior Minister Eli) Yishai why the committee isn't convening," he said. "To this day I haven't received an answer."

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Efrat Orbach insisted any delays were nothing more than a bureaucratic matter.

The prime minister's spokesman, Mark Regev, said only that "following the Biden visit and the mishap, the prime minister asked that a mechanism be put in place to prevent a recurrence of this kind of debacle." He would not elaborate.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley wouldn't discuss what Israel was telling the United States about Jewish construction.

"We have asked both sides to take steps to rebuild trust and to create momentum so that we can see advances" in peace talks, Crowley told reporters. "We're not going to go into details about what we've asked them to do, but obviously this is an important issue in the atmosphere to see the advancement of peace."

Netanyahu repeatedly has insisted that Israel has a right to build anywhere in the city's eastern sector, which Palestinians hope to make their future capital, and acknowledging any slowdown would have huge political risks. Netanyahu's coalition is dominated by hard-liners who oppose any division of Jerusalem.


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