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Al-Arabiya: Israel decides “not to build new settlements”

Israel has given new assurances to the United States on Jewish settlement activity in the occupied West Bank ahead of a first visit to the region by President George W. Bush next month, army radio reported on Friday.

Orders have been given to halt construction activity in the settlements of Maale Adumim, east of Jerusalem, and the Ariel bloc in the northern West Bank, the radio said citing housing ministry officials.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also gave an undertaking that Israel would invite no new tenders for housing units in settlements in annexed Arab east Jerusalem, the radio said.

The prime minister’s spokesman Mark Regev said Israel had decided to take a series of steps to fulfill its obligations under the roadmap, an internationally drafted peace blueprint that has made next to no progress since its launch in 2003.

It had decided “not to build new settlements,” “not to enlarge the geographic extent of existing settlements,” “not to confiscate private Palestinian land” and “to halt incentives” to Jewish settlers to move to the West Bank.

Olmert however refused to freeze an appeal for bids that had already been issued for new construction in the east Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa, known to the Palestinians as Jebel Abu Ghneim.

That invitation for tenders, which came after the relaunch of peace talks at a conference in the United States in November, infuriated the Palestinians.

But Olmert insisted he would not go back on it because Israel regards east Jerusalem as an integral part of its capital, even though the annexation has never been recognized by the international community.

Since Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war, some 470,000 settlers have moved to the territory, 200,000 of them to annexed east Jerusalem.

Palestinian anger over the invitation of new tenders for construction even after November’s U.S. peace conference overshadowed the first two round of talks between the two sides’ negotiating teams.

After talks between Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday both sides sought to draw a line under the row.

“Both parties agreed not to take any steps that may preempt or prejudice the issues reserved for the permanent status negotiations,” including settlements, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told reporters.

A senior Israeli official told journalists that “the issues that have stalled the talks have been defused.

“Both sides have agreed that neither party would take steps that would compromise the ability to reach a final agreement and will not prejudice the outcome of the talks,” the official said.