Israel to allow more settlements, drawing rebuke from US

By Ethan Bronner
New York Times / September 5, 2009

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JERUSALEM - Israeli officials said yesterday that the government would authorize building hundreds of housing units in West Bank settlements, and then it expected to freeze construction for six to nine months in anticipation of restarting peace talks with the Palestinians.

The seemingly contradictory steps reflected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s balancing of interests as he tries to satisfy his own party, Likud, which wants settlements to continue unimpeded, and the Obama administration, joined by Palestinians and the Arab world, which say all building must stop now.

Both sides criticized Netanyahu’s plan, though some analysts said that the blend of half-measures was necessary to advance talks while holding his government together.

“The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop,’’ the White House said yesterday in a statement. “We are working to create a climate in which negotiations can take place, and such actions make it harder to create such a climate.’’

The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, meeting in Paris with President Nicolas Sarkozy, said the plan was “not acceptable.’’

Likud activists also expressed displeasure.

Three weeks ago, Israel’s housing minister said that the government had not given final approval for any settlement building in the West Bank since the Netanyahu government took office in late March, a statement that prompted President Obama to say he saw “movement in the right direction.’’ But the housing minister also said there was no formal freeze in place.

Yesterday, a senior US official said that the Obama administration had been informed of Netanyahu’s plan on Thursday and that, while it was unhappy about it - and it made that clear to the prime minister’s aides - it still hoped and expected that the subsequent freeze would lead to renewed peace negotiations.

Further talks are anticipated this month at the next gathering of the UN General Assembly, which Netanyahu, Abbas, and Obama will attend.

The United States has been trying to persuade Arab states to offer Israel measures in exchange for a building freeze, including reopening Israeli trade offices in several countries and allowing Israeli planes heading to Asia to use their air space. Some of those hopes may be jeopardized by the latest announcement.

Two Israeli officials returned yesterday from meetings with the Obama administration’s envoy to the region, George J. Mitchell.

Mitchell is expected in Jerusalem late next week for further negotiations over the renewal of the peace process. The goal: direct talks with the Palestinians and supportive gestures from the Arab world, in exchange for the freeze and moves by Israeli authorities to continue to improve security and the economy for Palestinians in the West Bank.

Abbas is head of the Fatah movement, whose rival Hamas rules in Gaza. Fatah controls the West Bank, and Abbas has increased his popularity among Palestinians as West Bank conditions improve and Gaza stagnates under an Israeli and Egyptian embargo, according to two new opinion polls. That may encourage Abbas to go ahead with talks.