Arabs say US destroys hope over settlements

REUTERS

Mon 23 August, 2004 00:13

By Mohammed Assadi

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinians, backed by the Arab League, have accused the United States of destroying the Middle East peace process after Washington signalled it could accept some growth of Israeli settlements.

Until now, the United States had demanded a freeze on building all Jewish settlements on land occupied in the 1967 Middle East war. The communities are seen as illegal by most of the world, though Israel disputes this.

But the Bush administration signalled flexibility on Saturday on some limited growth in West Bank settlements to help embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as he tries to get a plan for withdrawal from occupied Gaza past his far right.

"I do not believe that America says now that settlements can be expanded. This thwarts and destroys the peace process," Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie told reporters on Sunday.

Palestinians, who fear uprooting the Gaza settlers is a cover for strengthening Israel's hold on bigger West Bank enclav es, said the United States was tearing up its own peace "road map" -- a blueprint for a Palestinian state that has been stalled by violence.

"For the United States to take such positions ... can only damage the peace process, if it exists, and damage the whole situation and make it more difficult," Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa told reporters in Cairo.

A senior U.S. administration official, commenting on Israel's plan to build 1,000 more settler homes, said on Saturday: "There is some flexibility there".

While the White House denied any official change in the U.S. stance, an official said efforts were under way to clarify with the Israelis what "settlement activity" means.

Based on this new understanding, officials said Washington could agree to new construction provided it did not take place outside the boundaries of existing settlements.

MEANT TO HELP SHARON

A senior Israeli source said there was a clear understanding that the United States was trying to help Sharon push through his p lan for "disengagement" from nearly four years of conflict with the Palestinians.

"This is crucial for Sharon to get through the disengagement plan. He needs it for the Israeli public and his party. The Americans understand that," the senior source said.

Accepting limited construction within existing settlements could also benefit President George W. Bush, who is loath to cross Jewish-American voters who back settlements and other conservative supporters of Israel in the run-up to the November election.

Sharon on Sunday took another step towards implementing his Gaza pullout plan by opening an office to discuss compensation with settlers.

His unilateral initiative involves removing all the 8,000 settlers from Gaza and several hundred of the more than 230,000 settlers in the West Bank by the end of next year. Officials have said settlers may receive as much as $300,000 per family.

Setting up the bureau came despite the blow dealt to Sharon last week by pro-settler rebels in his right-wing Likud party , who voted down a proposed coalition with the centre-left Labour party that could have smoothed the way for the Gaza plan.

Hardliners in Likud, which was long opposed to ceding any land, say giving up Gaza would "reward Palestinian terrorism".

Israeli sources said Sharon would now pursue contacts on forming a coalition with ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, but might woo Labour at a later date.