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.
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.
"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.
Netanyahu met with members of his Likud Party on Monday and denied any freeze was in place, said Danny Danon, a lawmaker who attended the session.
"If we see there is a freeze, we will not sit quietly and the prime minister knows that," Danon said. "This coalition will not allow the prime minister to freeze building in Jerusalem."
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he has not heard anything official about an Israeli construction freeze in east Jerusalem. "What counts for us is what we'll be seeing on the ground," he said.
Still, any de facto freeze could make it easier for the Palestinians to participate in U.S.-mediated peace talks. The Palestinians have refused to hold direct negotiations with Netanyahu unless he halts all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Attempts to advance construction haven't stopped altogether: A lower-level municipal committee gave preliminary approval last week to a synagogue and kindergarten in a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem, Turujamen said. The decision still needs Interior Ministry approval.
The freeze does not affect construction that is already under way, or hundreds of apartments where approval has already been granted. However, an engineer who oversees residential construction in a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem said proposals to build hundreds of apartments have been held up in recent weeks. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to jeopardize his business ties with the city.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, the site of sacred shrines holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians, in the 1967 Middle East war and immediately annexed it. Some 180,000 Israelis now live in Jewish neighborhoods built there in the past four decades, and about 2,000 more live in the heart of traditionally Arab neighborhoods.
The Palestinians, the U.S. and the rest of the international community do not recognize the annexation and regard the neighborhoods as no different from the settlements Israel built in the West Bank.
Associated Press writers Ian Deitch, Diaa Hadid and Aron Heller in Jerusalem and Foster Klug in Washington contributed to this report.