PA's Abbas criticizes Israel, U.S. over settlement policy

By Gideon Alon and Aluf Benn

Haaretz

Adar2 17, 5765

Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday criticized Israel and indirectly the United States over settlements.

Incensed over a repeat of U.S. support for Israel's retaining main settlement blocs in the West Bank in a peace deal, Abbas did not name the U.S., but his target was clear.

"Any talk of settlements that is not a discussion of stopping them is unacceptable," Abbas said. "Here I'm talking about the discussions of annexing settlement blocs. This is unacceptable because this affects final status issues." The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank.

Earlier Sunday, Israel's Ambassador to the U.S. Danny Ayalon, responding to a controversy surrounding American policy on the Middle East, said that President George W. Bush unequivocally supports Israel's stance that major West Bank settlement blocs are to be part of the Jewish state under a future peace treaty.

On Friday, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer strongly denied a Yedioth Ahronoth report quoting him as having stated that, contrary to Israeli statements, no understandings had been reached between Israel and the Bush administration over the future status of the settlement blocs.

In remarks broadcast on Army Radio on Sunday, Kurtzer said that he had been "badly misquoted" by the newspaper.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom on Sunday called for an investigation to determine who had leaked the alleged remarks. Shalom noted that a text describing the meeting where Kurtzer made his alleged remarks had been delivered to 22 Foreign Ministry members, any of whom could have given it to the newspaper.

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, however, decided later Sunday that there would be no criminal probe into how the ambassador's comments were leaked.

Shalom said he was ready to undergo a lie detector test to disprove rumors that he was involved in the leak.

"I would never do anything that would harm relations between Israel and the United States," Shalom said. "I regret the publication of Kurtzer's remarks. There was no place for it."

Ayalon said he read the Foreign Ministry transcripts of the meeting, and "I can state with full authority that not even one word was mentioned regarding settlement blocs."

According to Ayalon, "The Americans were also very surprised by this, both Kurtzer, who did not say these words, and also the White House, which called early in the morning to say that [the Yedioth account] was utterly baseless, and that the understandings were in place as before.

"I even discerned a certain astonishment and a bit of rage over the leak, and over the inaccuracy, the distortions of the leak."

Asked if Bush was determined in his support of Israel's stance that Ariel, Ma'aleh Adumim and other large settlement blocs would remain within Israel's final-status borders, Ayalon replied "Certainly. Unequivocally."

"On the basis of contacts with all administration officials, this is certainly the position, and I stand behind this."

Taking issue with Ayalon's interpretation, Likud cabinet minister Yisrael Katz, an opponent of the disengagement plan, Sunday demanded that the pullout effort be suspended until the American administration further clarified its stance.

"The statements made by the U.S. ambassador and the American Secretary of State - the denials and clarifications notwithstanding - are statements of clear differences of interpretation between the United States and Israel," Katz said.

Rice decries 'people trying to create confusion'
Over the weekend, the American administration reiterated Bush's promises to Sharon at their previous meeting in April 2004, which centered on the recognition that the settlement blocs would remain in Israel's hands in a future final status agreement with the Palestinians.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking to Israel Radio over the weekend, said "We do not appreciate people trying to create confusion where there is no confusion."

"I understand this is a big issue in Israel but no one should say there's no agreement between our two governments. That's wrong. There is; it was reached on April 14 last year and it's clear."

"While we will not prejudice the outcome of final status negotiations, the changes on the ground, the `existing major Israeli population centers' will have to be taken in account in any final status negotiations," she said.

Rice went further than the vague phrasing of Bush's letter and made it clear that the term "Israeli population centers" refers directly to the "large settlement blocs."

Sharon: U.S. stance on blocs remains firm
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Saturday that the American agreement on the settlement blocs stands firm.

Sharon, who fumed at the leak, said it came from political rivals who objected to the disengagement plan.

Sharon and Bush will discuss the continued construction in the settlement blocs in the West Bank at a meeting Bush scheduled for two weeks' time at the president's ranch in Texas. The Israelis are expecting Bush to clarify the American position on this.

Israel wants the president's promise to correspond to the facts on the ground even before the final status settlement, so that there is an understanding that it can continue building in Ma'aleh Adumim, Ariel, Gush Etzion and the area around Jerusalem.

Hamas leader Mahmoud a-Zahar told Palestinian daily Al-Quds Sunday that continued Israeli construction in the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, east of Jerusalem, was a breach of a truce with Palestinian opposition groups, a truce that Israel considers an internal Palestinian matter.

A-Zahar refrained from threatening to resume violent acts against Israel over settlement expansion. Violent attacks, he said, would be resumed only if thousands of Jews would visit Jerusalem's Temple Mount, holy to both Muslims and Jews.