Israel’s prime minister on Tuesday abruptly halted a plan to explore the potential construction of thousands of new homes in West Bank settlements, saying it had created an “unnecessary confrontation” with the international community that threatened to weaken his campaign against Iran’s suspect nuclear program.
The plan announced by Israel’s Housing Ministry earlier in the day had prompted a Palestinian threat to walk out of US-brokered peace talks and drew angry criticism from officials in Washington, who said they had been blindsided by the move.
In a statement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had asked his housing minister, Uri Ariel, to “reconsider” the plan. He said Ariel, a member of the pro-settlement Jewish Home Party, had drawn up the plan “without any advance coordination.”
“This step does not contribute to settlement. On the contrary, there is damage here for settlement,” Netanyahu said. “This is a meaningless step — legally and in practice — and an action that creates an unnecessary confrontation with the international community at a time when we are making an effort to persuade elements in the international community to reach a better deal with Iran.”
The statement said Ariel had accepted the request.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat had earlier said that at the instruction of his president, he had contacted the US, Russia, the EU, the UN and the Arab League to voice objections.
“I informed them that if Israel implements this decision, then this means the end of the negotiations and the end of the peace process,” Erekat said.
In Washington, US Department of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the White House had been caught off guard and demanded “further explanation” from Israel.
“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.
Peace talks resumed in late July after a nearly five-year break. The sides have set an April target date for reaching an agreement.
Both sides have said the negotiations have made no progress.
Israeli officials had unsuccessfully tried to play down Ariel’s announcement. They said the government was merely beginning a long-term feasibility study, no new construction had been approved and any construction would be years away.