Report: U.S. changes stance on settlement construction

Aluf Benn

Haaretz Correspondent and Haaretz Service

August 22, 2004

The New York Times on Saturday quoted American and Israeli officials as saying that the Bush administration has changed its stance on Israeli construction in the West Bank, and now supports building in existing settlements, although not in undeveloped areas.

The paper says that this new U.S. policy, although not publicly declared, was illustrated in the American response Tuesday to the invitation for tenders for the construction of some 1,000 new apartments in West Bank settlements.

A White House spokesman said Tuesday that the tenders were being studied and that it was not possible to determine whether the commitments had been violated.

The American national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, said two days later that the Israeli government had been asked to "let us know what it is that they are doing."

While Rice later added that "settlement expansion is not consistent with our understanding under the road map," the construction of the new apartments has been classed as natural growth rather than expansion.

In the past, Washington has met the issuing of such tenders with calls for Israel to keep to the terms of the U.S.-sponsored road map, which bans all forms of settlement construction.

Saturday's newspaper report quotes a Bush administration official who said that the recent U.S. statement on the new settlement construction points to "a covert policy decision toward accepting natural growth" in some settlements. The road map includes a ban on any settlement construction.

According to the paper, the official said that the Bush administration has made the decision in an effort to avoid a confrontation with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is currently fighting opponents to his disengagement plan within the Likud.

The Prime Minister's Office refused to respond to the New York times report, and stated that, "We are indeed discussing the matter with the United States."

The disengagement plan includes a complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the evacuation of four settlements in the northern West Bank.

But, says the report, some administration officials also admitted that Bush was wary of censuring Israel too strongly, for fear of alienating its supporters among the conservative voter base.

"Some American officials acknowledged, in addition, that President Bush was reluctant to criticize Israel during his re-election campaign, which is counting on support from conservative supporters of Israel," the paper said.

The decision drew condemnation Saturday from both Peace Now and Meretz-Yahad MK Yossi Sarid.

The decision "creates an opening for a new wave of construction in all the settlements and distances Israel from resolving the conflict with the Palestinians," said Peace Now, adding that it also delivered a severe knock to the road map.

Sarid warned the U.S. administration that it is "mistaken if it believes American Jews support the destructive policies of the settlers."

He accused Sharon of taking advantage of the American presidential elections to further his own agenda.

"The Israeli government is exploiting the U.S. election campaign and is turning the U.S. administration into a laughing stock by continuing to build in the settlements," he said.

Two weeks ago, in response to American requests for clarification, Sharon delayed tenders for the construction of more than 1,000 housing units in the settlements, among them many of those issued Tuesday.

U.S. delegation to arrive in September for talks on settlement 'building limits'
A team of experts from Washington is expected to arrive in Israel in September to accompany talks on freezing settlement expansion and outpost evacuation. The talks are currently being conducted by U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer and Baruch Shpiegel, an advisor to Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. The talks in September are to determine "building limits" in each settlement, beyond which additional construction will be forbidden.

Dov Weisglass, an advisor to Sharon, will set out for Washington in the first week of September for a meeting with Rice. The two will discuss the amended route of the West Bank separation fence. The U.S. administration requested that Israel present the route ahead of an expected hearing on the fence in the United Nations. The U.S. said that if Israel requests that deliberations and decisions in the UN Security Council on the fence be prevented, the administration wants to know ahead of time what it is being asked to defend.