In an attempt to jump-start Middle East peace talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Wednesday for a c. Israel's security cabinet, one of the gatekeeping bodies on major policy decisions, approved the freeze with an 11-1 vote.
"We have been told by our friends that once Israel takes the first meaningful steps towards peace, the Arab world and the Palestinians will follow,'' Netanyahu said after winning the security cabinet's approval. "Well, the government of Israel has taken a very big step towards peace today, and I hope the Palestinian and the Arab world will work with us to forge a new beginning for our children and theirs."
Netanyahu indicated that such an announcement would be forthcoming following his last meeting with US President Barack Obama, who has been trying to push Israel towards a settlement freeze almost since taking office. The move was immediately met with criticism from several corners.
Several members of Netanyahu's cabinet belonging to Shas – a conservative, ultra-Orthodox party – boycotted Wednesday's crucial cabinet meetings in a sign of their disagreement. Settlers and their political supporters said Netanyahu was going too far, while Palestinians said he had not gone far enough.
"I think it's a complete crumbling of Netanyahu's position and is contrary to all of his electoral promises," Danny Dayan, chairman of the main settler lobby, told the Monitor. "He promised an end to unilateral steps, and here we see him after only a few months in office giving up, even though there is no reciprocity from the Palestinians."
Dayan said that Netanyahu could expect strong opposition to the move and that settlements would continue to experience so-called natural growth regardless.
"We are 300,000 citizens, living in 150 communities," he says. "It is impossible to freeze us. I don't how it will happen, but we will break this freeze."
The freeze proposal would suspend construction permits for new residences and the start of new residential construction for 10 months. Netanyahu's office said that the freeze does not include natural growth – characterized mainly as the product of young people who grew up in the settlements wanting to build homes for families of their own. Nor does it include East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1980. While Israel now declares Jerusalem its united and eternal capital, Palestinians view it as the seat of their future state.
"The exclusion of Jerusalem is a very serious problem for us," said Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in comments to reporters Wednesday. "What has changed to make something that was not acceptable a week or 10 days ago [acceptable] now?"
The diplomatic tug-of-war over a settlement freeze has raged since September, when Mr. Obama tried to get Netanyahu to agree to stop the growth of Israeli building in the West Bank ahead of a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. But Netanyahu deflected the pressure to make such a commitment, suggesting a temporary slowdown instead – and giving his stamp of approval for 3,000 new homes to be built. The Palestinian leadership has consistently said that it will not return to negotiations unless there is a full settlement freeze.