JERUSALEM — Israel's prime minister on Monday welcomed Washington's decision to abandon its call for an Israeli freeze on settlement construction, saying the United States now understands Israel and the Palestinians must instead address the major issues that divide them.
It was the first time Benjamin Netanyahu commented publicly on the changed U.S. policy, articulated on Friday by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. He spoke just ahead of the arrival of the White House envoy, who was returning to the Mideast to launch a new round of indirect peace talks after direct negotiations ran aground.
The U.S. acknowledged last week that it had failed to coax Israel into extending a freeze on Jewish settlement construction — a key Palestinian demand for holding direct negotiations.
The Palestinians say there is no point in talking if Israel continues to build homes for Jewish settlers in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — captured territories the Palestinians want for their future state.
Speaking to a business conference Monday, Netanyahu faulted the Obama administration for concentrating on a "peripheral" issue — namely, the settlements.
"To reach peace, (the sides) must discuss the issues that truly hold up peace," he said. "I am glad we will begin discussing these issues. We will narrow gaps, and when these gaps are narrowed, we will proceed to direct talks whose objective will be to reach a blueprint for peace."
The major issues that have tormented negotiators for years include the final borders of the Jewish and Palestinian states; the status of contested Jerusalem; arrangements to ensure Israel's security from Palestinian militants; and resolving the fate of Palestinian refugees displaced in the war surrounding Israel's 1948 creation.
In her speech, Clinton urged both sides to detail their positions on these and other issues "without delay and with real specificity."
During his visit, U.S. envoy George Mitchell will be shuttling between the two sides, trying to prod them to lay out detailed positions on the core issues. Mitchell was set to meet Netanyahu later Monday, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday.
Settlement construction is a hot-button issue for the Palestinians because the building is gobbling up land they want for a future state. About half a million settlers have moved to the West Bank and east Jerusalem since Israel captured it in 1967.
Israel imposed a 10-month partial freeze in November 2009 in a bid to draw the Palestinians to the negotiating table. But the Palestinians resumed talks only in September, and when the Israeli freeze expired three weeks later, the negotiations collapsed.
The U.S. tried to persuade Israel to renew the settlement moratorium for 90 days by offering a package of security and diplomatic incentives. But the sides couldn't reach a deal because of Israel's refusal to include east Jerusalem in a freeze, and because of uncertainty over what would happen when a renewed freeze expired.
Since the expiration of the settlement slowdown, Israeli settlers have rapidly resumed building hundreds of homes.
On Monday, the Israeli military confirmed that Jewish settlers are also building illegally in West Bank settlements and unauthorized settlement enclaves.
Anti-settlement activist Dror Etkes estimated that 200 new homes and apartments are under construction illegally. He faulted the military, which is the sovereign power in the West Bank, for not taking action against it.
Military spokesman Maj. Guy Inbar said he could not confirm the numbers. He said the military would take action against the illegal construction "in accordance with its priorities."
Etkes said the Yesha Council, the mainstream settler organization, was spearheading the construction. But Yesha Council chairman Dani Dayan said he was not aware of any illegal construction.