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(photo credit: AP)
A settlement freeze is "stupid," Ariel Mayor Ran Nachman told a three-person research team from the State Department that toured a number of Jewish communities in the West Bank on Thursday.
Their weeklong visit came as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced that he would place a moratorium on housing projects in the settlements, but only after he first approved hundreds of new homes.
Netanyahu also said he would allow the completion of 2,500 apartments now under construction.
But his announcement on Thursday, which came in reaction to the US demand for a complete freeze in settlement activity, did not assuage settler leaders, including those within his own Likud Party such as Nachman and Gush Etzion Regional Council head Shaul Goldstein.
"It's a major mistake," Goldstein, who also met with the American team, said on Saturday night.
Any decision to freeze any settlement activity would be an acknowledgement by Israel that these Jewish communities are an obstacle to peace, and that was simply not true, said Goldstein.
"My fear is that is the world will understand from this that even Netanyahu and the right wing believe that the settlements are temporary," he said. "It's easy to press Israel to freeze settlement activity, but it contributes nothing" to the peace process.
If Palestinians can live in Israel, then Jews should be able to live in Judea and Samaria, said Goldstein, particularly given the historical connection Jews had to the land.
He had explained this to the State Department researchers, he told The Jerusalem Post.
"I wanted them to understand our view," Goldstein said.
Officials from the US Consulate in east Jerusalem often visit settlements. They occasionally bring an outside team with them.
As part of their work here last week, the team spoke with Pinchas Wallerstein, the director-general of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, and with Peace Now officials.
On Thursday they visited Goldstein in Gush Etzion, and the settlements of Ma'aleh Adumim and Ariel.
As he sat in the afternoon in CafÃ© CafÃ© restaurant in the settlement which he helped build 31 years ago, Nachman spoke with the team in a clear, calm voice.
But his anger at American policies was evident in his language.
He blamed the idea of a settlement freeze on the "Jew boys" who are advising US President Barack Obama on foreign policy, such as David Axelrod.
By way of explanation for his language, Nachman noted that he did not speak in politically correct terms and that it was his style to be blunt.
As the State Department team sat around the table and took notes, they could see Ariel's swimming pool through the glass wall behind Nachman, where residents were busy doing laps.
But despite the prosperous appearance of his city, Nachman explained to them that his residents already knew what it was to have a housing shortage.
So few projects have been approved in his city in the last decade, he said, that growth had slowed almost to a halt.
"We should be a city of 35,000 people. Instead we are below 20,000," he said.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Ariel's population has grown by only 800 people in seven years, from 16,000 in 2001, to 16,800 in 2008.
While the overall population growth rate in Judea and Samaria in 2008 was 4.9 percent, his city grew by only 0.9%, only half of the national growth rate of 1.8%.
Nachman later told the Post that in the past decade, the school population in this city had shrunk, forcing him to close eight kindergartens.
What has the lack of housing in his city contributed to the peace process, Nachman asked the American researchers rhetorically. "One big zero," he said.
The same was true under Yitzhak Rabin, who also stopped new Jewish construction in Judea and Samaria when he was prime minister, Nachman said.
Then, he was so angry he refused to hang a photograph of Rabin in his office.
"This American policy is a big mistake," said Nachman.
"It's a chutzpa" for the State Department and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to pressure the prime minister to comply with this demand, he said. Such an obvious attempt to interfere with Israeli policy would backfire, the mayor warned.
"More and more, Israelis do not like this American pressure. It unites them around Netanyahu. It won't bring Netanyahu down, it will only strengthen him," he said.
The researchers spent most of their time asking questions. Nachman spent so much time talking, he barely touched his ice coffee.
Nachman, who has been in office since 1985 and has been the city's only elected mayor, told the State Department team that he would still be in office after Obama had left the White House.
For the people of Ariel, this was not about slogans or US policy experiments, but rather "a matter of life and death."
He and Goldstein said they planned to work to pressure Netanyahu not to cede to American demands.
Goldstein, who is a member of the Likud central committee, said he had been talking with other Likud mayors this week.
They plan to speak with Netanyahu when they meet with him this week in advance of Rosh Hashana.
"We have been saying, we have to do something about Bibi. We elected Bibi and we did not elect Obama," Goldstein said.