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WASHINGTON, Nov 25 2009 (IPS) - U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed an announcement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday that Israel will impose a 10-month “moratorium” on settlements, but warned that the move falls short of a freeze on settlement building – a condition that has been a mainstay of U.S. policy towards Israel.
“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 for the moratorium. “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.”
Mitchell responded favourably to the move but warned that the steps fall short of U.S. calls for a full freeze on settlements.
“It falls short of a full settlement freeze, but it is more than any Israeli government has done before and can help movement toward agreement between the parties,” Mitchell said.
“While they fall short of a full freeze, we believe the steps announced by the prime minister are significant and could have substantial impact on the ground,” Mitchell continued. “For the first time ever an Israeli government will stop housing approvals and all new construction of housing units and related infrastructure in West Bank settlements. That’s a positive development.”
Clinton also welcomed the announcement and said the moratorium was a move in the right direction.
“Let me say to all the people of the region and world: our commitment to achieving a solution with two states living side by side in peace and security is unwavering,” Clinton concluded.
“‘Borders of 67’ is the language that anyone who is talking about a genuine two-state solution is looking for,” Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and a former Israeli peace negotiator, told IPS.
“For this Israeli government it would certainly be an anathema. [The Obama administration’s] language very consciously ups the ante,” Levy said.
Since the beginning of his term, U.S. President Barack Obama has called for Israel to freeze settlements but continued settlement expansions in the West Bank had left observers pondering how much influence the White House held over the right-wing Likud party-led Israeli government.
The steps taken by Netanyahu fall noticeably short of the full freeze on settlements called for by the Obama administration.
Under the moratorium, exceptions will be made for the construction of schools and synagogues in existing West Bank settlements but no new building will be started.
Mitchell was careful to state that although the U.S. considers the moratorium a step in the right direction, “United States policy remains unaffected and unchanged,” and “the status of Jerusalem and all other permanent status issues must be resolved by the parties through negotiations”.
“The United States also disagrees with some Israeli actions in Jerusalem affecting Palestinians in areas such as housing, including the continuing pattern of evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes. The United States has not accepted and disagrees with any unilateral action by either party which could have the effect of preempting negotiations,” warned Mitchell.
Netanyahu’s announcement got mixed reactions here in Washington.
The powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) praised the move.
“AIPAC applauds today’s major announcement by Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel’s unilateral moratorium on settlement activity in the West Bank. The move, which goes further than any previous Israeli government in restraining activity, underscores the Jewish State’s unyielding commitment to achieving peace with the Palestinians and all of its Arab neighbors,” read an AIPAC statement.
“It also provides a deep expression of Israeli confidence in American diplomacy and Israeli dedication to cooperation with the United States in the pursuit of peace in the Middle East,” the statement continued.
Americans for Peace Now (APN) issued a statement welcoming the moratorium announcement but echoed Mitchell’s warning that Netanyahu’s stance on settlements falls short of the freeze called for by the Obama administration.
“As noted by U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell, the Israeli decision does not meet all of America’s expectations. The United States continues to oppose all settlement construction,” said APN.
“The Israeli decision also falls short of Israel’s own interests, which are best served by a complete freeze. Expanding settlements creates new points of friction between Israelis and Palestinians. It burdens Israel’s security services. It drains Israel’s financial resources. It increases the barriers to the creation of a viable Palestinian state and thus creates a false impression that Israelis are not interested in a two-state solution,” APN warned.
J Street, the new “pro-Israel” lobby in Washington, also picked up on Netanyahu’s failure to impose a freeze on settlements or address the situation in East Jerusalem.
“Senator Mitchell is correct to note that in halting some settlement construction for a limited time, this Israeli government has taken a step forward. However, this is not the full settlement freeze called for by the United States and does not address the deteriorating situation in East Jerusalem,” said J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami.
“Israel, the Palestinians and the broader Arab world will all need to do far more if we are to see real progress toward resolution of the conflict,” concluded Ben-Ami.
Netanyahu’s decision to impose a moratorium instead of a freeze on settlement construction is noticeable in that it permits the Israeli government to argue that concessions have been made but falls well short of the settlement freezes mandated in the Roadmap for Peace, first outlined by U.S. President George W. Bush in 2002.
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