Israel Orders Partial Settlement Freeze in West Bank

November 26, 2009 Updated: November 26, 2009

Israel says that it will partially halt new settlement building in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Wednesday his cabinet’s decision of a “policy of restraint” during a press conference in Jerusalem.

New residential construction permits and new residential construction in the West Bank for Israelis will be suspended for 10 months.

One goal of the decision was described by Netanyahu’s administration as a way to push peace talks with the Palestinian Authority forward.

“We hope that this decision will help launch meaningful peace negotiations to reach a historic peace agreement that will finally end the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel,” said Mr. Netanyahu in a speech that was published on the Israel minister of foreign affairs Web site.

Recent census data put the population of Israelis living in the region at over 300,000. Settlements are groupings of Israelis in the West Bank that range from medium-sized, well-established cities to small illegal outposts of several families. Jurisdictional control in the West Bank is mixed between full Palestinian control, full Israeli control, and mixed control. The average West Bank resident lives amidst a mixture of Arab villages and Israeli settlements.

The U.S. Department of State emphasized the move’s pivotal role in the peace process in a statement on their Web site from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“We believe that through good-faith negotiations the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines,” said Ms. Clinton. she went on to say that “with agreed swaps … the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.”

Israel has said it sees the move as promoting its “broad national interests.” But what was largely emphasized in Wednesday’s announcement was the goal of bringing a lasting peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We hope that this decision will help launch meaningful peace negotiations to reach a historic peace agreement that will finally end the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel,” said Mr. Netanyahu in his statement following the announcement.

U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell said in a press briefing that although it falls short of a full settlement freeze, it is a more definitive move than any other Israeli president has made on the issue. Mitchell said that a two-state solution is “urgently needed,” and is also relevant to the peace and security of the United States.

“The president knows that achieving this goal [of a two-state solution] will be difficult, but he also has said that he will not waiver in his persistent pursuit of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East,” said Mr. Mitchell in a statement to the media. “For that reason, he has dedicated himself and his administration to the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and to the creation of an atmosphere that maximizes the prospects for success.”

Mitchell added that the United States believes that as a means to simply getting Israel and the Palestinian Authority to the negotiating table, several factors in addition to stopping settlement activity are needed. The measures include Palestinian expansion and improvement of security efforts and “strong and meaningful action on incitement.”

“While they fall short of a full freeze, we believe the steps announced by the prime minister are significant and could have substantial impact on the ground,” said Mr. Mitchell.

The Netanyahu administration is relatively new—the prime minister was sworn in only eight months ago.