Arafat Aides Deplore Permissive U.S. Policy on Settlement Growth

By STEVEN ERLANGER

The New York Times

August 23, 2004

JERUSALEM, Aug. 22 - The Palestinian leadership expressed dismay on Sunday at a report that the Bush administration is turning a blind eye to an expansion of Israeli settlements.

The Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, speaking to reporters in Ramallah, said: "I don't believe that America says now that settlements can be expanded. This thwarts and destroys the peace process."

Nabil Abu Rudeina, an adviser to Yasir Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority, said that "the American position is harmful to the peace process" and "encourages the Israeli government to accelerate its aggressions and its war against the Palestinian people."

Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian spokesman, was more restrained, saying that Washington must push Israel to live up to its commitments "to stop all settlement activity, including natural growth."

In Cairo, the secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, said the new American position "can only damage the peace process, if it exists, and damage the whole situation and make it more difficult."

The minor furor was occasioned by an article from Washington in The New York Times on Saturday, reporting that the Bush administration, trying to help the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, out of a difficult political spot, had agreed to accept new settlement growth quietly, within the physical boundaries of existing settlements.

For the past three years, American policy has called for a freeze of "all settlement activity," including the "natural growth" brought about by an increase in the birthrate and other factors. The Israeli government agreed to that policy in negotiations with a commission led by former United States Senator George J. Mitchell, and later as part of a "road map" toward peace negotiated by the so-called quartet - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

But Israel still interprets a freeze on settlement activity as allowing "thickening" - the building of new apartments within settlement boundaries, either in empty areas or as higher floors to existing buildings.

Previously, when settlement expansions have been announced, American officials have called them violations. But after an Israeli announcement last week about the planned construction of 1,001 housing units, administration spokesmen said they were withholding judgment.

Instead, a team of experts is to come to Israel to go over aerial maps, in part to see if the Israelis are keeping to their own interpretation of a freeze.

The new American statements last week reflected "a covert policy decision toward accepting natural growth" of some settlements, despite repeated past statements, an administration official said.

Israeli officials, however, said that the new understanding had been a secret, de facto agreement for some time, practically since the Mitchell Committee report in 2001.

The Israeli officials suggested instead that the Bush administration, by discussing the issue now, was trying to appeal to Jewish voters in the American elections.

American pressure is now focused on Mr. Sharon's parallel commitment to dismantle illegal settlement outposts. Washington has told Mr. Sharon that he is moving too slowly on this issue. His advisers say Israeli court injunctions in favor of settlers are blocking more rapid movement.

Mr. Sharon, in a letter published Sunday in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot and addressed to the Labor Party leader, Shimon Peres, said he was determined "to enlarge the government to include the Labor Party" and move ahead with plans for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, including the dismantling of Gaza settlements and four small settlements in the West Bank.

Mr. Sharon's own Likud Party voted by a large margin last week to exclude Labor from any new coalition. The vote was nonbinding, but Mr. Sharon risks a split in Likud if he goes ahead. Even the announcement of the 1,001 new housing units was understood here as a way to appeal to his Likud opponents before the vote - in vain.

On Sunday, the Israeli government opened an office to arrange compensation for the 8,000 or so Gaza settlers who would have to leave. Mr. Sharon has said he hopes that many will agree to compensation voluntarily.

Mr. Arafat is resisting calls among his legislators to sign decrees that would put his imprimatur behind political, administrative and security changes. But he is reaching out again to his former prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who quit the job after only a few months last September because he was frustrated with Mr. Arafat's maneuverings.