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Israeli PM Olmert Curbs West Bank Settlement Construction

Israel is taking steps to curb settlement activity in the West Bank. But as Robert Berger reports from VOA's Jerusalem bureau, the Palestinians say it is not enough.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has sent an official letter to Cabinet ministers ordering them not to authorize any West Bank construction without his approval. The move is aimed at giving a boost to peace talks, which have been harmed by disputes over Israeli settlement construction.

Mr. Olmert has been embarrassed by several recent Housing Ministry announcements on settlements that have brought charges from the Palestinians and the United States that Israel is violating the "Roadmap" peace plan. The plan, which calls for a settlement freeze, forms the basis of peace talks agreed to at the Annapolis Conference in the United States a month ago.

Mr. Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev says Israel is keeping its commitments under the Roadmap.

"It i s very important that we follow through with actions on the ground, no new settlements, no outward expansion, outward growth, of existing settlements," he said. "And it shows our commitment to moving forward with the Palestinians."

Mr. Olmert's new instructions do not apply to one of the most contentious issues, the construction of more than 300 new homes in the Jewish settlement of Har Homa in disputed East Jerusalem, land Israel captured in the 1967 war. Israeli officials say the Roadmap does not apply to Jerusalem because it will remain the capital of the state of Israel in any final peace agreement.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad disagrees. He says Israeli construction in East Jerusalem is illegal and undermines the peace process.

"Those actions have to stop," he said. "They are clearly inconsistent with the overall direction that this process should take if it is to produce an outcome that is satisfactory to all."

Despite the settlement dispute, both sides have agree to move ahead with negotiations on the core issues of the conflict, including the status of Jerusalem, refugees and the final borders of a Palestinian state. Talks will move into high gear next week when President Bush visits Israel and the West Bank.