Israel's cabinet on Wednesday voted in favor of a proposal by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to officially freeze all new construction in Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria for a period of 10 months to give peace talks with the Palestinians another chance.
Speaking to the nation following the vote, Netanyahu insisted that "now is time to move forward toward peace. There is no more time to waste. Israel has taken a far-reaching step toward peace, it is time for the Palestinians to do the same."
The decision did not include the eastern half of Jerusalem, where the Palestinians and the international community also accuse Israel of settlement activity, and will also not halt construction on 3,000 Jewish housing units already being built in the so-called "West Bank."
The cabinet vote was really just an official public announcement of a policy Netanyahu has been implementing since he took office in March. Since then, Israel has not authorized construction of any new housing developments in Judea and Samaria, and has only allowed select projects to go forward in Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lauded the announcement of an official settlement freeze, and said it would certainly "help move forward" the stalled peace process. US Middle East envoy George Mitchell described the decision as "significant" and said it would have a "substantial impact on the ground."
But the Palestinians took a much different view. Emboldened by US President Barack Obama's recent strong criticism of Jewish building projects in Jerusalem, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said Israel's decision meant nothing, since the new red line for restarting talks was now a halt to Jewish construction in parts of the holy city claimed by the Palestinians.
"Jerusalem is the red line for the Palestinians and Arabs," Abbas said in a statement released though his spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudaineh. "Any return to negotiations must be on the basis of a complete settlement freeze, and in Jerusalem foremost."
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman fired back on Thursday, noting that Israel did not actually care what Abbas thought of its decision, which was primarily made to show the US and the international community that Israel is willing to make compromises for peace, while it is the Palestinians who refuse to move forward.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told reporters that the decision would be "sufficient to demonstrate whether the Palestinians are serious about peace or just serial excuse givers."
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