PM: Israel will retain settlement blocs

By Aluf Benn

Haaretz

Adar2 17, 5765

"We can't expect to receive explicit American agreement to build freely in the settlements," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said at Sunday's cabinet meeting. The large blocs of settlement in the West Bank "will remain in Israel's hands and will fall within the (separation) fence, and we made this position clear to the Americans. This is our position, even if they express reservations," he said.

The U.S. administration makes a distinction between his position that the blocs will remain in Israeli hands after the final status agreement, and the issues of continuing construction in the settlements at the present phase, Sharon said.

"The Americans always expressed criticism about construction in the settlements, and they have done so now, too. The publicity (about the plan to connect Ma'aleh Adumim to Jerusalem - A.B.) put them in a very difficult spot," he said.

Sharon's top adviser, attorney Dov Weisglass, will leave next week for Washington for preparatory talks before the meeting of President George Bush and Sharon, which will take place next month at the president's ranch in Texas.

Weisglass will discuss construction in the settlement blocs, but according to a senior political source, the focus of Sharon's visit will be on other issues, such as the disengagement plan, the entry phases into the "road map" peace plan and the situation in the Palestinian Authority.

Israel prefers to sidestep the issue of the settlement blocs of Ma'aleh Adumim, Ariel, Gush Etzion and the Jerusalem "envelope," and to continue massive construction in these areas, without reaching an explicit understanding with the United States. So far there has been no agreed-upon definition of the concept of "settlement blocs," or of their
boundaries.

Israel has promised the U.S. to freeze construction in the settlements "beyond the current building line," so that they will not expand and take over new tracts of land. Later it was agreed that the "building line" of each settlement would be marked jointly,
according to aerial photos.

The defense minister's adviser, Baruch Speigel, was given the task of collecting material about the settlements, but the talks he held last summer with U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer quickly reached a stalemate. Israel decided to begin the demarcation with the isolated settlements, where no new building has been planned in any case, and to defer to some time in the future the demarcation of the settlement blocs, where
construction would continue in the meantime.

The Americans agreed to make a distinction between isolated settlements and blocs, but demanded that the discussion of both types of settlement proceed simultaneously. Israel objected, and the talks were suspended, without having reached an agreement. Senior political sources assume that the suspension of the talks on delimiting the settlements was part of the "break" that the United States gave to Sharon in light of the disengagement plan.

Just as the evacuation of the illegal outposts was postponed until after the withdrawal from Gaza, so will the issue of freezing construction in the settlements be deferred. Israel would like to "synchronize" Bush's promise that the settlement blocs will be annexed to Israel in the future with the possibility of building in the present phase, before a final status agreement.

Sharon will try to reach an understanding with Bush, which will prevent disagreements between Israel and the U.S. and will put handling of the settlement issues back on a more tranquil footing.