Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday evening denied Palestinian claims that he had agreed to a freeze on building at West Bank settlements, as part of efforts to calm tensions and end a wave of Palestinian terror attacks.
According to Palestinian sources quoted by the Ynet news site, US Secretary of State John Kerry relayed a pledge for a freeze from Netanyahu to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas when they met in Amman on Saturday. In a similar report, the Al-Araby al-Jadeed website said Netanyahu had agreed to “a silent freeze” in settlement building, but would continue to issue new building tenders in order not to destroy his coalition.
An Israeli official quickly denied any government commitment to freezing settlements. Later Saturday night, Netanyahu tweeted: “In contrast to Palestinian claims, Israel has made no commitment not to approve new building plans in Judea and Samaria.”
An Israeli official did confirm that Israel has agreed to round-the-clock video monitoring atop the Temple Mount, as one of a number of new steps aimed at reducing tensions at the Temple Mount. Israel is actually interested in having the cameras, the Israeli official said, “in order to help disprove the accusations that it is changing the status quo” at the holy site. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the cameras would also show that “it is not Israel that is provoking tension” at the site. He said Israel now expected more effort from the Muslim Waqf to ensure order was maintained at the mosques there.
Netanyahu’s office also indicated there would be no change to arrangements for Jewish visitors to the site. The PA has been demanding oversight by the Muslim Waqf of all visiting groups.
At a press conference two weeks ago, called to assure Israelis that the government was capable of thwarting the ongoing wave of Palestinian terrorism, Netanyahu said it was “common sense” for him not to risk alienating parts of the international community by announcing new settlement building in response to the terror surge, as many of his right-wing coalition colleagues have demanded. Nobody needed to teach him lessons about the value of settlements, he declared, but his prime obligation was to the security of Israel’s citizens.
On Tuesday, furthermore, Netanyahu announced sorrowfully that settlement construction had slowed on his watch, compared to previous prime ministers, to an annual average of 1,500 new units.
In Jordan earlier on Saturday, Kerry announced that Israel and Jordan had agreed on various steps aimed at reducing tensions. Those steps include round-the-clock video monitoring and Israel reaffirming Jordan’s special and historic role as custodian of the site, known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif or the Noble Sanctuary, Kerry said.
Responding to various steps reportedly promised by Netanyahu to help calm tensions, Al-Araby al-Jadeed quoted Abbas saying earlier Saturday that “if the Israeli moves are serious, it will be possible to make progress.”
Ten Israelis have been killed and dozens injured in a string of Palestinian terror attacks since the beginning of the month. At least 50 Palestinians have also died, many while carrying out stabbing attacks on Israelis, and others in clashes with security forces.