The New York Times
August 21, 2004
WASHINGTON, Aug. 20 - The Bush administration, moving to lend political support to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at a time of political turmoil, has modified its policy and signaled approval of growth in at least some Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, American and Israeli officials say.
In the latest modification of American policy, the administration now supports construction of new apartments in areas already built up in some settlements, as long as the expansion does not extend outward to undeveloped parts of the West Bank, according to the officials.
The new policy has not been enunciated publicly. It came to light this week when Mr. Sharon's government announced that 1,001 new bids for construction would be issued for subsidized apartments for settlers in the occupied territories.
For the last three years, American policy has called for a freeze of "all settlement activity," including "natural growth" brought about by an increase in the birthrate and other factors. As a result, when settlement expansions have been announced, American officials have called them violations.
After the latest Israeli announcement, however, administration spokesmen said they were withholding judgment.
"What we have asked of the Israeli government is to let us know what it is that they are doing," Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, said Thursday in answer to a question at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.
But she added later that "settlement expansion is not consistent with our understanding under the road map,'' the three-year peace plan adopted by the United States, Russia, Europe and the United Nations.
Administration officials said Ms. Rice was alluding to a team of technical advisers, led by a top official in the State Department's intelligence bureau, who are to travel to Israel next month and examine the boundary lines of construction sites in settlements, as well as the location of tiny settlement "outposts" that Mr. Sharon has promised to take down.
An administration official, amplifying Ms. Rice's comment, said a decision had been made this week not to compound Mr. Sharon's political troubles at a time when he was battling hard-liners in his Likud coalition who were revolting against his proposal to pull all settlements out of the occupied Gaza Strip.
The new American statements this week reflected "a covert policy decision toward accepting natural growth" of some settlements, despite repeated past statements, according to the official.
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.
There are pressures on the administration from the other side, however, which officials said helped explain its ambiguous public stance. The road map bans "natural growth" of settlements.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will be meeting with the road map partners, known as the quartet, next month at the United Nations, and they are expected to repeat their demands that Israel cease all construction of new units in the settlements.
Israel maintains that its acceptance of the road map did not include agreeing to a freeze on "natural growth" of settlements and that it got a green light for the policy of "thickening" settlements - that is, building new units within areas already built up - in 2002 from Mr. Powell. His aides dispute that view.
There have been hints in some less noticed public statements by Israeli and American officials that the United States did not object to some settlement expansion, despite its public policy, for many months.
Indeed, an Israeli official asserted that for some time, it was understood in Israel and in Washington that settlements could in effect expand vertically, within already dense construction areas, but not in an outer direction, and that the Americans understood this.
He acknowledged that no American official had enunciated such a policy in public, but noted that in April Mr. Sharon's chief of staff, Dov Weissglas, wrote a note, made public then, that in carrying out "restrictions" on the growth of settlements, Israel would try to produce "a better definition of the construction line of settlements" in the West Bank.
Mr. Weissglas's letter said an Israeli team would work with Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer to review aerial photos of settlements and "jointly define the construction line" in each one.
The technical team to visit Israel next month is to continue this process, administration and Israeli officials said, clearing the way for agreed-upon areas where settlements may be expanded.
Israel has also argued that the plans for the 1,000 new housing units are in areas that Mr. Bush referred to implicitly in April as land that would be recognized as part of Israel in any future peace accord with the Palestinians.
On April 14, Mr. Bush said "new realities on the ground,'' made it "unrealistic" for Israel give up settlements in major population centers.
American and Israeli officials said the latest iteration of American policy was pressed in internal discussions by Elliott Abrams, director of Middle East affairs on the National Security Council staff, who recently returned from a vacation in Israel, where he met with top Israeli leaders, including Mr. Weissglas.
Critics of Israel's policy of "natural growth" in settlements, including Israel's left and Palestinian leaders, argue that it is a subterfuge for wholesale outward expansion of settlements. Many consider all Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to be illegal because they violate Israel's role as an occupying power. Israel captured those lands in the 1967 Middle East war.
The critics assert that Israel set construction boundaries that extend miles into empty West Bank territory, and then permitted housing to go up in those areas by saying the new construction falls within the settlement boundaries. The administration's technical team has accordingly been asked to examine whether these claims are true or false in each settlement.
In addition, the team is to look at those settlement outposts that Mr. Sharon's government has acknowledged are illegal and unauthorized and has promised to remove, but has taken no action on. There are about 80 such outposts, which some Israeli officials say consist of little more than a trailer or makeshift building.