Jerusalem (AP) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will approve hundreds of new housing units in West Bank settlements before slowing settlement construction, two of his aides said Friday, in an apparent snub of Washington's public demand for a total settlement freeze.
The aides also said Netanyahu would be willing to consider a temporary freeze in settlement construction, but their definition of a freeze would include building the new units and finishing some 2,500 others currently under construction.
The settlement suspension also would not include east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians hope to make their future capital.
The U.S. has a set a high public bar for a freeze, saying repeatedly that all settlement activity on lands the Palestinians claim for a future state must stop, without exception. However, Israel appeared to gain some wiggle room in recent weeks as the sides discussed the details of a would-be settlement freeze.
The two Netanuyahu aides spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the government has made no official announcement. The information also appeared in major Israeli media Friday morning and was clearly intended for public consumption.
It was unclear if Washington had prior knowledge of the Israeli announcement, which had the potential to undermine the Obama administration's credibility in the Arab world.
"I think the only thing that will be suspended by this announcement is the peace process," said senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
In the next few days, the aides said, the prime minister will approve the construction of hundreds of new apartments in the West Bank.
They did not give a specific number, but said these units would be in addition to the 2,500 that are already under construction and will continue to be built. The construction will be centered in the main settlement blocs, areas Israel hopes to retain after any peace deal.
In exchange for a suspension, Netanyahu would expect the Arab world to take steps toward normalizing relations with Israel, the aides added. The U.S. has been pressing Arab countries to make moves toward normalization, an effort that has been inconclusive so far.
There have been signs of a settlement slowdown even without the announcement of an official freeze. Government statistics released Thursday showed that new construction in Israel's West Bank settlements fell by one-third in the first half of 2009.
The number of Israeli settlers has steadily increased for decades and has more than doubled since the early 1990s. Today, about 300,000 Israelis live among about 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank. An additional 180,000 Israelis live in east Jerusalem neighborhoods built since Israel captured the area in the 1967 Mideast war.
The Palestinians want the West Bank as part of a future state, along with east Jerusalem and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, and see continued settlement construction as a sign that Israel is not serious about making peace.
Netanyahu faces internal opposition to any move toward compromise on settlements. His governing coalition is dominated by hardliners, and even many members of his own party are certain to oppose the move.
Danny Danon, a Likud lawmaker, said Netanyahu can expect a fight over any decision to halt or slow settlement building.
"Most members of the Likud, most members of the coalition, don't think that what he's about to do is the right step," Danon told Israel Radio.
Peace talks have been suspended since shortly before Netanyahu's election, but in recent weeks there have been signs of a thaw.
Israeli and Palestinian Cabinet ministers met this week to discuss development projects, in the first Cabinet-level contacts between the sides since Netanyahu came to power. The sides have also said that a first meeting between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is likely at the U.N. General Assembly in New York later this month.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will approve hundreds of new housing units in West Bank settlements before slowing settlement construction, two of his aides said Friday, in an apparent snub of Washington's public demand for a total settlement freeze.