JERUSALEM Israel has frozen nearly all housing starts in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Housing Minister Uri Ariel said on Tuesday, in an apparent bid to help U.S. efforts to revive peace talks with the Palestinians.
The step, confirmed several weeks ago by the Israel's anti-settlement Peace Now movement, has had no impact on construction already under way in settlements - projects that have raised Palestinian concern and drawn international condemnation.
Settlement construction on land the Palestinians want for a state was the main reason for the breakdown of U.S.-sponsored negotiations in 2010 and has been cited as a stumbling block to Secretary of State John Kerry's latest bid to restart talks.
"I'll give you the facts: in Jerusalem, since the beginning of the year, there have been no tenders except for one ... and the same goes for Judea and Samaria," Ariel, using the Biblical names for the Israeli-occupied West Bank, told Army Radio.
Ariel, a member of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, said he believed the step was temporary and that he was working to end it.
The Palestinians rejected Ariel's remarks.
"While such statements are made to placate Secretary Kerry, the fact remains that settlement activity has continued unabated under successive Netanyahu governments," the Palestine Liberation Organisation said in a statement.
Last week, officials said Israel was pressing on with plans for the construction of more than 1,000 new homes in two West Bank settlements.
Those proposals have not reached the stage where bids are sought from contractors, a process entailing public announcements that could clash with Kerry's diplomatic drive.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not publicly confirmed housing starts have been suspended. But he said last week Israel had to be "smart about" where it built and hinted it was ready to limit expansion to settlement clusters it intends to keep in any future land-for-peace deal.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has so far linked a resumption of peace talks to a complete freeze of settlement building, which Palestinians see as establishing facts on the ground that deny them land they need for a viable state.
Most countries consider settlements illegal under international law. Israel, which cites Biblical and historical links to the West Bank and Jerusalem, disputes that and says the settlement issue should be worked out in negotiations.
Some 500,000 Israelis have settled in the two areas, which Israel captured along with the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war. About 2.5 million Palestinians live there.
Since taking office in February, Kerry has visited Israel and the Palestinian territories four times to try to get both sides to renew negotiations, so far with little success.
(Writing by Maayan Lubell, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Alistair Lyon)