JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a 10-month freeze on settlement construction.
"This is a very difficult step for me and my fellow ministers," Netanyahu said in a televised news conference Wednesday evening. "This is a far-reaching and painful subject."
Israel’s Security Cabinet had approved the freeze almost unanimously shortly before the announcement.
"The government of Israel has taken a very big step towards peace today," Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu also addressed the Palestinians directly.
"This is the time to advance peace together," he said. "Now the Israeli public expects that you will take a courageous step, too."
National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau of the Yisrael Beiteinu party was the lone dissenter among the Security Cabinet’s 17 voting members.
Netanyahu said the freeze will not include Israeli’s "sovereign capital" of Jerusalem, including eastern Jerusalem. It also will not apply to construction that has been started or authorized in the West Bank, as well as buildings to allow the 300,000 residents of the West Bank to live "a normal life," including, he said, "synagogues, schools, kindergartens and necessary public buildings."
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat both told reporters before the announcement that a settlement freeze was unacceptable without a halt to construction in eastern Jerusalem.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said following the announcement that the construction freeze would help advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"We believe that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders," Clinton said in a statement.
At a news conference at the State Department, the administration’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, said that "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. 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."
"Nothing like this occurred during the Bush administration," he added later.
Netanyahu told Security Cabinet members at the start of Wednesday’s meeting that "In the international circumstances that have been created, this step will promote Israel’s broad national interests. This is neither simple nor easy, but it has many more advantages than disadvantages. It allows us to place a simple fact before the world: The government of Israel wants to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians, is taking practical steps in order to do so and is very serious in its intentions to promote peace."