Netanyahu may seek partial limits on settlements

Israel's prime minister to seek government backing for curtailing construction but would still allow development in areas already approved.

Palestinian families hold portraits of jailed relatives during a protest calling for their release from Israeli prisons on November 23, 2009 at the Red Cross offices in Gaza City. Israeli President Shimon Peres said there has been "progress" in talks to free soldier Gilad Shalit, held captive by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip for the past three years. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED ABED *** Local Caption ***  299599-01-08.jpg *** Local Caption ***  299599-01-08.jpg
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TEL AVIV // Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, is considering seeking his government's approval for a 10-month limitation on settlement construction in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Mr Netanyahu discussed the plan with Barack Obama, the US president, during their meeting in Washington more than two weeks ago, according to reports by well-sourced commentators in the Israeli media yesterday.

The move would obligate Israel to dramatically restrict new approvals and building permits for homes in the West Bank for the 10-month period, but would still allow the country to continue building houses and public buildings that have already obtained the official nod, according to the reports. Any such limitation would not apply to Jewish neighbourhoods in mostly Arab East Jerusalem. While the plan falls short of Palestinian demands for a total freeze on Jewish settlements, Mr Netanyahu is believed to be hoping that it would nevertheless be accepted by both the Obama administration and the Palestinians as a significant Israeli gesture towards the renewal of stalled peace talks.

Washington has so far not said whether it would support Israeli building restrictions that do not fulfil its previous call for a complete construction moratorium for at least one year. However, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, signalled a change of tone last month when she praised Mr Netanyahu during her visit in Israel for offering "unprecedented" concessions on West Bank construction, but did not elaborate on the details of his offer.

For months, George Mitchell, the top US envoy to the Middle East, has been working to try to seal what he has called a comprehensive deal under which Israel would freeze settlement activity in return for Arab states taking steps to normalise ties with Israel. While his efforts have so far yielded few tangible results, there are indications of progress. Yossi Gal, the director-general of Israel's foreign ministry, held secret meetings with top officials in Oman - including the foreign minister, Yusuf bin Alawi Abdallah - this week during a visit in Muscat by an Israeli delegation, according to a report yesterday in Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper.

Mr Gal, whose official reason to visit Oman was to attend an international conference on the desalination of water, is looking to renew Israel's diplomatic ties with Oman, which shut the Israeli embassy in Muscat when the second Palestinian Intifada began in 2000. The newspaper reported that Oman has hinged its acceptance for the resumption of relations on an Israeli settlement freeze. Mr Netanyahu's plan to seek his cabinet's approval for a settlement freeze is taking place in parallel to his efforts to clinch a deal with Hamas on a prisoner swap.

Any such agreement, under which Israel would release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Sgt Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured in 2006 and held in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip ever since, would also need to pass a governmental vote. As media speculation gathered pace this week on a possible deal in coming days, the top Israeli newspapers reported yesterday that Mr Netanyahu is likely to obtain a slim majority of the 30 ministers in his predominantly right-wing governing coalition to support carrying out the exchange, but he faces opposition.

Perhaps as a negotiating tactic, the Israeli premier has made attempts this week to play down prospects for an imminent prisoner swap. In the meantime, though, some other senior Israeli officials have expressed more optimism for a possible breakthrough. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Israel's infrastructure minister, told an Israeli radio station yesterday from Turkey, where he is on a visit: "I think that we are very close to a deal on an exchange. There will be a high price to pay, but I think the government will approve it. This deal will prove to all the mothers of Israel that we are not ready to abandon a single soldier."

Mr Ben-Eliezer was referring to the concern of some Israeli officials that a failure to bring back Sgt Shalit would discourage young men eligible to serve in the army from opting to join combat units.