JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has barred new construction work, building planning and occupancy tenders at West Bank settlements without his approval, a move meant to bolster US-backed peace talks, documents show.
Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem December 30, 2007. Olmert has barred new construction work, building planning and occupancy tenders at West Bank settlements without his approval. [Agencies]
Olmert has been under US pressure to help jumpstart peace talks, soured by disputes over Jewish settlement construction, ahead of a visit by President George W. Bush early next month.
In a December 30 letter to the ministers of defense, housing and agriculture, Olmert wrote that "construction, new building, expansion, preparation of plans, publication of residency tenders, confiscation of land stemming from other settlement activities in the (West Bank) area will not go forward and will not be implemented without requesting and receiving in advance approval by the defense minister and the prime minister."
The letter, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, does not rule out the prime minister approving construction within West Bank settlements.
His spokesman, Mark Regev, said Olmert committed at talks last week with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas not to take "any actions that could prejudice a final status agreement."
The prime minister had been caught off guard by a series of Housing Ministry announcements on settlements that have opened a rift in month-old peace talks with the Palestinians.
The talks, launched at a US-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, bogged down since Israel announced plans to build hundreds of new homes in an area near Jerusalem known to Israelis as Har Homa and to Palestinians as Jabal Abu Ghneim.
Palestinians see the building of Har Homa as the last rampart in a wall of settlements encircling Arab East Jerusalem, cutting it off from the rest of the occupied West Bank. They say it is a strategic move by Israel to pre-empt any possibility of East Jerusalem becoming the Palestinian capital.
Plans for new Israeli settlements this month have drawn rare criticism from the United States, as well as the European Union, saying it could undermine Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
Olmert's office said his order applies to all settlements in the West Bank, including Maale Adumim, which Israel hopes to keep as part of any final peace deal.