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Israel quietly freezes new building in East Jerusalem

Jerusalem City councilman Meir Margalit says the prime minister's office has put a de facto freeze on new building in East Jerusalem and meetings to approve such projects have ceased. He sees that as a sign Israel is ready to restart Palestinian peace talks.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer / April 27, 2010

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish boy walks past a construction site in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, Monday. Under heavy US pressure, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has imposed a de facto freeze on new Jewish construction.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP

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Jerusalem

If the Middle East peace process were a stock, it would be one of the riskiest investments on the market. But there are bullish indicators for renewed peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

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Both sides seem to be moving toward compromises which, although seemingly minor, might pave the way to the first serious peace talks since the failed Annapolis process that began in late 2007.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in an interview aired late Monday on Israeli television that he was ready to begin "proximity talks" – US-mediated negotiations for restarting peace talks – with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Abbas also said that he would bring the plans for such talks – the specifics of which were presented over the weekend by US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell – to the Arab League when it meets this weekend.

IN PICTURES: Israel settlements

Apparent de facto freeze on new building in E. Jerusalem

Raising expectations that a compromise may be in the works, it appears that Mr. Netanyahu has called some kind of de facto freeze on new Israeli building in East Jerusalem – which Palestinians see as their future capital.

"It's not that all construction has been frozen, because projects that have been approved in the past have continued to be constructed," says city councilman Meir Margalit, a member of Meretz, a left-wing party that favors an East Jerusalem settlement freeze. But within the municipality of Jerusalem, he says, committees that usually deal with approving building projects in East Jerusalem have not met since the March visit of Vice President Joe Biden was interrupted by the announcement of 1,600 new housing units in a Jewish East Jerusalem neighborhood.

"From my point of view, this is proof that when the Americans want something, 'yes, they can,' " he says, alluding to President Obama's campaign slogan. "It's a positive sign. The timing is very important, because as I see it, to freeze all new building in East Jerusalem is a symbolic step to restart the negotiations. It's a lot more important than building a few more apartments."

PM's office puts hold on new projects

During Mr. Biden's visit, Netanyahu's interior minister announced that 1,600 new housing units would be built in Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish neighborhood built in 1995, next to the crowded Arab neighborhood of Shuafat. In an Israeli TV interview April 22, Netanyahu said that there would be no building freeze in Jerusalem, and that his policy had not changed.

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