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Israeli PM rejects plans to build more settlements

By Tom Watkins, Michael Schwartz and Kareem Khadder, CNN
updated 8:33 AM EST, Wed November 13, 2013
Israel's controversial separation barrier surrounds the Ras Khamis neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, on November 12, 2013.
Israel's controversial separation barrier surrounds the Ras Khamis neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, on November 12, 2013.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Israel cancels plans for thousands more settlements
  • PM Netanyahu: "This is a meaningless step - legally and in practice"
  • 23,000 settlement homes were planned for East Jerusalem, West Bank

Jerusalem (CNN) -- Israel canceled controversial plans to construct thousands of new homes in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank, hours after the announcement sparked strong criticism.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel to reconsider long-term plans to build more than 20,000 units, according to a press release from Netanyahu's office.

"This step does not contribute to settlement," the statement said. "On the contrary, there is damage here for settlement."

"This is a meaningless step -- legally and in practice -- and an action that creates an unnecessary confrontation with the international community at a time when we are making an effort to persuade elements in the international community to reach a better deal with Iran. At this time, the attention of the international community must not be diverted from the main effort -- preventing Iran from receiving an agreement that will allow it to continue its military nuclear program. As a member of the government, action must be coordinated and have the benefit of forethought."

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Ariel said he would accede to Netanyahu's request, according to the press release.

Lior Amihai of the activist group Peace Now said the Housing Ministry issued 23,786 planning tenders two weeks ago; the tenders are issued to companies to draw plans to be used in possible future construction.

The construction was to have taken place in a number of years, after the plans went through various stages of government approval, he said.

Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations at Americans for Peace Now in Washington, said the plans had included construction in areas deep in the West Bank, east of the barrier that separates Israel from the West Bank.

"This is planning for areas that cannot possibly remain part of Israel or become part of Israel under any negotiated agreement," Friedman said before Netanyahu's announcement. "It's impossible."

A member of the PLO executive committee also said earlier that Netanyahu appeared to be intent on scuttling any hope for a solution in peace talks recently relaunched by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

"Obviously, Netanyahu is using settlements as a weapon of mass destruction to destroy the chances of peace and torpedo the negotiations," Hanan Ashrawi said. "It is an affront to the whole world and particularly to John Kerry and a deliberate violation to international law."

There are currently more than 300,000 settlers in the West Bank, according to the Israeli Bureau of Statistics, and about 200,000 in East Jerusalem.

CNN's Michael Schwartz and Kareem Khadder reported from Jerusalem. CNN's Tom Watkins reported and wrote from Atlanta.

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