JERUSALEM — Israel's prime minister has effectively frozen new Jewish construction in East Jerusalem, municipal officials said Monday, reflecting the need to mend a serious rift with the United States and get Mideast peace talks back on track.
The move comes despite Benjamin Netanyahu's repeated assertion he would never halt construction in East Jerusalem and risks angering hard-liners in his government.
Still, the de facto freeze appeared to offer the promise of reviving peace efforts derailed after Israel announced plans for a major Jewish housing development during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden last month.
That set off the worst diplomatic dispute between the United States and Israel in decades — and prompted the Palestinians to call off a new round of U.S.-brokered peace talks.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signaled Monday he was ready to start indirect talks with Israel after weeks of hesitation. Speaking to Israel's Channel 2 TV, Abbas said he would present the U.S. proposal to the Arab League this week and the Palestinians "hope that the reply will be positive."
Word of a de facto freeze on East Jerusalem construction came from municipal officials and a construction executive, who told the Associated Press that the committee that approves such projects had not met since March 9 — the day Israel announced its contentious plan to build 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem.
It was not clear if the halt to approvals constituted a genuine moratorium or how long it would last, and Israeli government officials would not confirm any kind of freeze.
However, two City Council members and an engineer who oversees a major East Jerusalem construction project confirmed the procedures for approving new housing have been put on hold since the Biden incident.
"The government ordered the Interior Ministry immediately after the Biden incident to not even talk about new construction for Jewish homes in East Jerusalem," said Meir Margalit, a City Council member who said the information came from top Jerusalem officials involved with construction projects.
Another council member, Meir Turujamen, who sits on the Interior Ministry committee that gives final approval to building plans, said his panel has not met since the Biden visit. It used to meet weekly, he said.
The prime minister's spokesman, Mark Regev, said only that "following the Biden visit and the mishap, the prime minister asked that a mechanism be put in place to prevent a recurrence of this kind of debacle." He would not elaborate.