Condoleezza Rice warns settlement expansion will be a problem

Aluf Benn

Haaretz

Sivan 19, 5765

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned against continued construction in the territories last week on her visit to Jerusalem. "We don't want it to be a problem but it will," Rice told a senior Israeli official.

Rice said that alongside President George W. Bush's April 14 letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recognizing "existing Israeli settlement blocs" in the territories, the Americans expected Israel not to create facts on the ground.

"We can't be forced to accept changes in the status quo," Rice said.

Rice left no room for doubt when she said the fence route and increasing population in the settlements creates the appearance of facts on the ground, and although the U.S. wants to support Israel, it could not accept unilateral changes.

Rice said that on her way from Jerusalem to Ramallah last week to meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), she saw changes in the area, but did not go into detail as to what places she was referring to.

Government sources in Jerusalem said in response that Rice had not repeated the message of her latest round of talks in Israel, in which she mainly emphasized the need to shore up Abbas as the only possible partner, who cannot be allowed to fail.

Rice's statements hit at the heart of the debate between Sharon and his adversaries to the right as to whether the Bush letter relating to the determination of borders in a future peace agreement expresses U.S. recognition of the annexation of the large settlement blocs of Ariel, Ma'aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion. Since a final status agreement is not on the agenda at this time, the question is whether the U.S. administration is silently acquiescing to continued construction in the blocs and their inclusion in the separation fence.

Sharon and his allies are presenting the Bush letter as a valuable concession, in exchange for the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, that will allow the settlement blocs to be built up and annexed in the future. Sharon's opponents, however, accuse him of misleading them.

Meanwhile construction is continuing in the territories, especially in Ma'aleh Adumim, east of Jerusalem, and Upper Beitar. However, the U.S. administration has objected to the plans to link Ma'aleh Adumim to the capital, and to large-scale expropriation of Palestinian land in East Jerusalem.

The administration has decided to step up the number of visits by U.S. officials to the area to show involvement in events in Israel and the PA ahead of disengagement. Next week, the head of the State Department's Middle East desk, David Walsh, will visit the area. He will be followed by Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams. Walsh is expected subsequently to make another trip to the region.

While Rice was in Israel and the PA, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley met in Washington with members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hadley assured the delegation that the U.S. administration had rejected Abbas' demand to move on to final status negotiations after disengagement. Hadley said the U.S. was opposed to skipping over stages in the road map and would insist that Abbas dismantle the terrorist infrastructure.