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Expansion in the Works for West Bank Settlements

Israel takes bids to build 1,000 housing units, despite commitments contained in peace plan.

August 18, 2004|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Tuesday announced bids to build 1,000 housing units in four West Bank settlements, a move that angered Palestinian officials and came amid growing U.S. impatience over the settlement issue.

Under a U.S.-backed diplomatic blueprint for peace, Israel said it would freeze settlement activity and uproot unauthorized outposts -- small offshoots of settlements -- that had been built since March 2001.

The Bush administration has expressed frustration about the lack of progress in dismantling the outposts and says that expanding settlements runs counter to Israeli promises under the peace plan. Its public criticism has been generally mild, though.

Officials at the White House and State Department refused to criticize Sharon over Tuesday's development but said they would ask the Israelis for specifics of the settlement plan before deciding whether it violates the principles of the peace plan.

"Our embassy in Israel has been in touch with the government and has asked for some details," said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan, who was traveling with President Bush in Ridley, Pa. "That's where it stands at the moment."

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the Sharon government had agreed that Israel would freeze settlement activity in occupied areas. But when pressed, he said he could not declare the plan to be a violation of that principle.

"We are clear with the public and with the Israelis that they have made a commitment to freeze settlement activity, including natural growth. And that is the position -- that is the commitment they have made," he said. "That is what we are working with the Israelis to follow through on, both publicly and privately."

Israeli officials insist that the 1,000 units covered by the new bid request are in line with U.S. policy because they fall inside existing settlement blocks that Israel expects to keep as part of any permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians.

In April, Bush backed Israel's claim to major settlement clusters near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that contain the majority of Jewish residents in the West Bank.

Israeli housing officials said the construction is planned for the four settlements, which belong to established blocks: Ariel, Karnei Shomron, Betar Ilit and Maale Adumim.

Israel says the envisioned construction wouldn't enlarge the area encompassing the settlements. Construction is expected to start in about six months.

"This construction is inside cities that are part of the big settlement blocks. There is no connection to the disengagement, and this is part of the government's policy and the consensus in Israel," acting Housing Minister Tzipi Livni said on Israel Radio. "Any attempt to link it with the need to evacuate the illegal outposts is irrelevant."

U.S. and Israeli officials have been discussing what settlement construction is acceptable under the peace plan, which has been stalled for months. American officials plan to visit in the coming weeks to monitor settlement activity and progress in removing outposts.

Palestinian officials and Israeli peace activists charge that the expansion of settlements and outposts harms the chances for a negotiated peace by cutting into land that would be part of an eventual Palestinian state.

"Sharon has decided to scoff at his government's promise to freeze construction in settlements," said Yariv Oppenheimer, general director of Peace Now, an Israeli activist group that monitors settlements.

Palestinian Cabinet member Saeb Erekat denounced the construction bids as further proof of Israel's intention to "undermine, bury and destroy" the peace plan. "This is in total violation of promises Israel made to President Bush and shows Israel would rather dictate than negotiate," he said in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Peace Now said a recent survey showed that 3,700 units were under construction in the West Bank, although the group did not know when those additions were approved. But the activists characterized the bid request announced Tuesday as unusually large and said it was the first issued this year.

Peace Now also said there were about 50 unauthorized outposts -- well above the 28 that Israeli officials listed a few months ago. The Israelis have said that seven have been taken down, while planned evacuations of some others have been delayed because of legal challenges by settlers.

News of the proposed construction came the day before members of Sharon's Likud Party were to debate whether to embrace the Labor Party in a unity government, a marriage that would bolster the prime minister's tottery coalition and improve the odds of passing his plan to withdraw troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip by the end of next year.

Inside the right-leaning Likud, Sharon faces strong opposition from settlement defenders who fear that Labor's inclusion in the government would lead to a widespread pullout from the West Bank too.

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