JERUSALEM — Even as the Arab League condemned his expansion of Jewish settlements, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday approved construction of hundreds of homes in the occupied Jordan Valley and vowed that Israel will retain control of the area in any permanent accord with the Palestinians.
The move to fortify Israeli control in the lush strip of West Bank land came days after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned Netanyahu in a letter that settlement expansion threatens to "destroy" relations between Israel and its Arab peace partners.
And it came as Jordan's King Hussein told BBC television he is becoming impatient with Netanyahu's lack of progress in negotiations with the Palestinians and that he fears for the future of the peace process.
"Without visible progress in implementing agreements reached earlier between the Israeli government and the Palestinians in particular, we are at the mercy of events," Hussein said in Sunday's interview. "Anything could happen that could throw us completely off the track we have chosen."
Netanyahu, of the hard-line Likud Party, rejects trading occupied land for peace, the premise that underlies the agreements his predecessors from the Labor Party signed with the Palestinians. Although he has promised to uphold the accords, Israel and the Palestinians have been deadlocked for weeks over the terms of an Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank city of Hebron that is required by an interim agreement.
In the last six weeks, Netanyahu has moved decisively to expand Jewish settlements in what Arab leaders view as a violation of the spirit of the agreements. Netanyahu allowed the sale of 3,000 apartments that had been frozen during the previous peace negotiations and authorized the construction of 3,000 units in the West Bank settlements of Emmanuel and Kiryat Sefer.
Netanyahu also has said his government will expand Israeli communities in the Golan Heights. Israel captured that territory from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War, and Syrian President Hafez Assad says it must be returned if he is to make peace with Israel.
On Sunday, leaders representing Jordan Valley settlers presented Netanyahu with a plan that would nearly triple the Jewish population of that area to 15,000 residents in five years. Afterward, Netanyahu issued a statement that the fertile border region--part of the West Bank territory captured from Jordan during the 1967 war--is "inseparable" from the State of Israel.
"The prime minister said that the government has total commitment to the development and prosperity of the Jordan Valley and [that], even in a tough budget year such as this, the government will budget money for the development of infrastructure and roads in the Jordan Valley," the statement said.
David Levy, chairman of the Jordan Valley District Council, said Netanyahu gave the go-ahead for the construction of 350 housing units in the region next year. He said the settlers told Netanyahu that "there must be more than just natural growth in the Jordan Valley" and that the prime minister "agreed to almost every word we put in front of him."
Netanyahu spokesman David Bar-Illan confirmed that new housing was approved but said he did not have the figures. He said the expansion--large for a current Jewish population of about 5,500--would be consistent with the prime minister's decision to allow natural growth in the Jewish settlements.
Bar-Illan said the government defines natural growth not only as births and marriages but as allowing anyone who wants to move to the settlements to do so, without providing incentives or restrictions.
Unlike other West Bank construction, Bar-Illan said, the new housing in the Jordan Valley would probably not be controversial among Israelis because "it is more in the national consensus."
Even the previous Labor government viewed the Israeli-occupied portion of the Jordan Valley as the strategic border of Israel and planned to hang on to it. Levy--no relation to the Israeli foreign minister by the same name--said 60 new housing units were completed there under the Labor government in 1995-96.
But Arab leaders are not likely to view Jordan Valley construction favorably in the current political climate. Even before Netanyahu's announcement, Arab League diplomats meeting in Cairo on Sunday issued a statement demanding that Israel stop building settlements and dismantle existing ones immediately.
Notably, the Arab League did not agree to a Syrian demand that Arab states freeze any diplomatic relations they have with Israel. Arab League Secretary-General Ahmad Esmat Abdel Meguid said the organization would leave that decision to individual members.
Last week, Egypt's Mubarak sent a letter to Netanyahu warning that settlement expansion "hampers the peace process and all the efforts to advance it."
According to the text published in the Israeli daily Haaretz, Mubarak said he believes Netanyahu's settlement expansion "is meant to destroy the trust between Israel and its Arab neighbors and encourage [the parties] not to honor the peace agreements which have been signed."
Bar-Illan said Netanyahu responded that he felt his settlement policy was in keeping with the peace process and that he would not prevent Jews from moving to Judea and Samaria, the biblical name for the West Bank.
Israel signed a peace agreement with Egypt in 1979 and one with Jordan in 1994.