Jerusalem: Israel will not completely freeze all construction in its West Bank settlements, as the United States and the Palestinians have demanded, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday.
"A freeze for me means zero construction. I prefer to call it a building slowdown," he said in interviews broadcast on Israeli television channels to mark the two-day Jewish New Year festival, which begins Friday night.
Netanyahu has said that, while he continues the policies of previous governments to build no new settlements, he will also allow the construction of nearly 3,000 new apartments within existing ones. Building in Jewish neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem will also continue, he has vowed.
But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has insisted that a complete construction halt in Israeli settlements is a prerequisite for restarting stalled peace talks, and a condition for meeting with Netanyahu and President Barack Obama on the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly session in New York.
Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have been holding regular meetings, including two so far this week, with US envoy George Mitchell, in an effort to solve the dispute and allow the three-way meeting to take place in New York.
"I want to help advance the beginning of the (peace) process and I want at the same time to assist in the normal life of the settlers, who are also citizens of Israel," Netanyahu said.
Asked about the possible meeting with Obama and Abbas, he said that no parley has yet been arranged.
"I never asked for one, and I'm not the one stipulating conditions for it to take place," he said.
The Premier said he was ready to see the creation of a "truly demilitarised" Palestinian state, with international guarantees for security arrangements for Israel.
However, he added, such a state "has to recognise the existence, and right of existence, of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people."
First Published: Friday, September 18, 2009, 10:32