Israel Offers 10-Month Settlement Freeze

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered the Palestinians a 10-month moratorium on building new Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank Wednesday in a bid to lure them back into peace talks.

The offer while not significantly different from those previously discussed with U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell, is the first to have formal Israeli government approval.

It was approved by Israel's security cabinet today. At the start of the meeting Netanyahu told his colleagues, "This is neither simple nor easy but it has many more advantages than disadvantages. It allows us to place a simple fact before the world: Israel wants to enter negotiations with the Palestinians, is taking practical steps to do so and is very serious."

U.S. efforts to get the talks back on track have floundered over Netanyahu's refusal to implement a full settlement freeze and the Palestinians refusal to enter negotiations until such a freeze is in place.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quickly issued a statement saying, "Today's announcement by the government of Israel helps move forward toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Mitchell held a news conference at the State Department to say it was less than the Obama administration had sought from Israel, but said it was a significant concession from the Netanyahu government.

"It falls short of a full settlement freeze, but it is more than any Israeli government has done before and can help movement toward agreement between the parties," Mitchell said.

"Nothing like this occurred during the Bush administration," he added later.

Mitchell said he would return to the Mideast "in the near future" to resume his push for peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The Israelis have consistently argued in favor of continued building for so-called natural growth or normal life and they have also refused to place limits on construction in East Jerusalem.

Initial calls by President Obama in support of a complete freeze have been tempered as the months have gone by. Clinton on her most recent visit called Netanyahu's offer to restrain construction "unprecedented."

This caused widespread anger among Palestinians including President Mahmoud Abbas who has threatened to resign over the issue.

The Catch: East Jerusalem

However, the formal offer still does not include restrictions on settlement building in East Jerusalem or cancel existing permits for 3,000 new homes in the West Bank. As a result it is unlikely to break the deadlock.

In Ramallah Wednesday morning Palestinian Prime Minister Dr. Salam Fayyad responded to reporter's questions regarding the expected Israeli offer.

"The exclusion of East Jerusalem by the Israelis is a big problem for us. We are still only being offered a moratorium on settlement building. Why can't we be offered more? Why is it so difficult? All we are asking for is for Israeli compliance with international law."

Most believe Israel's settlements on occupied land are built in contravention of international law. Successive Israeli governments have disputed this view.

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