Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israeli settler leaders were stunned Wednesday by Prime Minister Ehud Barak's decision to suspend for several months the issuing of tenders for new housing in communities located on disputed land.
Barak said he was not concerned that the decision may give the appearance he was bowing to pressure from the Palestinian Authority, which earlier refused to conduct negotiations until Israel backed down on expansion of settlements.
"First of all, I do not deal with appearances, rather I deal with the real issues, the essential ones," Barak told reporters in Jerusalem after his meeting with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Barak's office released a statement Tuesday saying that Barak had decided "not to publish any additional [housing] tenders [in the territories] during the period of negotiations on a framework agreement."
The move came after Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo told his Israeli counterpart that the PA would not talk about anything other than settlements until Israeli building in the territories comes to a complete halt.
"The government position has always been, since its establishment, to permit only the natural growth of the settlements," Barak said. "Recently, 1,800 units have been constructed or are under construction in the primary settlements."
He pointed out it took about two years from the time tenders are submitted until new houses were built. A round of negotiations with the PA on reaching a "framework agreement" was expected to continue for about 70 days.
"Since the submission of bids and tenders now is harmful and will not strengthen our position in the negotiation process, there is no reason not to suspend the submission of new tenders for housing construction from December to March," he explained.
Barak emphasized that construction currently underway would continue.
"I want to stress that this combination is logical and will in fact strengthen our position, both in the Land of Israel and in the negotiation process. Those who believe that we should continue to request a submission of bids at the moment are misguided on both of these points," he concluded.
The PA had hoped Albright would during her regional visit be able to persuade Israel to freeze settlement building.
Albright told reporters Barak had "explained his decision to me about the suspension of certain activities and I think this is very important in terms of the Palestinian track."
Earlier, a State Department spokesman said the administration did not view Israeli settlement activity as helpful to the peace process.
Settler leaders expressed surprise at Barak's decision to stop issuing tenders.
Yehudit Tayar, spokesperson for the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, told CNSNews.com the actions were "worrisome."
Barak and the Council had agreed earlier to maintain open communications about decisions regarding settlements and not to spring any "surprises," Tayar said, adding Barak was "breaking his own rules."
The Council felt the move weakened Israel's stance regarding Jewish rights ahead of the "final status" negotiations, which will tackle the settlement question.
It's not clear whether Barak's concession will get the PA back to the negotiating table. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told CNSNews.com the PA was seeking clarification on the comments.
"We haven't received a full account of what Mr. Barak means," Erekat said. "We've asked for clarification. We hope to get it later today."
Albright is due to meet PA Chairman Yasser Arafat later Wednesday night in Ram'Allah.
Around 180,000 Israelis live in communities located in the Gaza Strip and across Judea-Samaria (the "West Bank"), areas religious Jews assert are the heartland of biblical Israel, but which the international community regards as "occupied Arab territory" and the Palestinians claim for a future independent state.