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Israel will not "strangle" existing settlements, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the cabinet on Monday in an indication that he does not view a freeze of all building beyond the Green Line as part of the road map's requirements of Israel.
At the same time, Olmert said Israel would not - and had not - built new settlements or outposts, and would not expropriate more land for settlement use.
The issue of settlement construction has been a major focus of preparatory discussion for next week's international meeting in Annapolis to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
While the Palestinians have been demanding a halt of construction in settlements, the US has also been pushing for both sides to honor commitments taken under the road map peace plan.
According to the road map's first phase, Palestinians must undertake reforms and implement security measures, while Israel must "immediately dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001," and "consistent with the Mitchell Report, freeze all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)."
Yet Israel has suggested that it wouldn't be dismantling illegal outposts ahead of the meeting, scheduled to take place next week, and is differing with the Palestinians about what its obligations are regarding settlements.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack reiterated Monday: "As we move forward through the process, both sides have responsibilities under the road map, and we are going to be looking to both sides to fulfill those responsibilities."
At the same time, he praised the Israeli government for having announced steps that are "positive, confidence-building measures in the run-up to Annapolis."
Those include a prisoner release and commitment not to build new settlements. But State Department officials wouldn't address whether they were dissatisfied that Israel didn't appear to be including construction in the so-called "consensus" large settlement blocs as under the purview of the road map.
Following the letter from US President George W. Bush to Ariel Sharon in 2005, which Israel interpreted to mean US acceptance that the large settlement blocs would be incorporated into Israel, this requirement for a settlement freeze was not believed in Jerusalem to be applicable inside the large settlement blocs.
Olmert told the ministers, however, that Israel could not avoid its obligations under the road map, and said Israel had not yet fulfilled those requirements.
At the same time, he said he would not allow a situation whereby the Palestinians did not fulfill their road map obligations to fight and uproot the terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza, but Israel was expected to fulfill its obligations.
"It's inconceivable that they will not fulfill their obligations to fight terrorism and we will need to make concessions, withdraw from territories and uproot settlements," Olmert said.
Dani Dayan, chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, said it was "outrageous" that Olmert had compared the Palestinians' obligation to fight terrorism with the construction of settlements.
"It puts the suicide bombers who want to kill people on the same level as my daughter who wants to build her home next to mine," he said.
Dayan was not assuaged by Olmert's words regarding the settlements.
"Even if Olmert didn't speak about freezing construction," he said, "in effect he has taken steps to stop it, so it doesn't matter if he said it or not."
Settlers have charged that in the last five months, since Ehud Barak became defense minister, no new housing projects have been approved anywhere over the Green Line.
According to the Construction and Housing Ministry, no new building permits have been issued to the larger settlements in the period. In the first part of 2007 some 260 housing units were authorized, compared with 1,550 for 2006 and 2,100 for 2005. Overall, that reflects an 87 percent drop from 2005.
But according to Peace Now, construction has continued in the West Bank based on previously authorized permits.
Peace Now secretary-general Yariv Oppenheimer said 762 housing units had been completed so far this year and work began on another 603 units, based on figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics.
Unlike Olmert, Oppenheimer said he felt the directive as set out by the road map was very clear.
The road map, he said, calls for a "total freeze of settlement activity. I do not think there is any justification to build more housing, even if it is for natural growth."
Oppenheimer said it didn't make sense to engage in construction projects that would have to be demolished after a final-status agreement was reached with the Palestinians.
On the ground, right-wing activists on Monday were busy preparing for the next push to establish new outposts in the West Bank.
In the settlement of Efrat, right-wing activists pressed on with their plans to build eight outposts over the upcoming Hanukka holiday in December, one for each day of the festival.
Attempts were made to establish five of those outposts over the Succot holiday. Activists have since been removed from three of those outposts at Hilltop 1013 near Halhoul, outside of the settlement of Hashmonaim and on an empty hilltop within the boundaries of Efrat, called Givat HaEitam. On Hanukka, the activists, under the umbrella group of Eretz Yisrael Faithful, plan to return to those hilltops.
They also plan to strengthen two outposts outside of Kedumim and Eilon Moreh, where according to activist Datya Yitzhaki they have managed to maintain a presence in spite of evacuations by security forces.
In addition, the activists plan to set out for three new sites outside of Kochav Hashahar, Beit El and in the contested E-1 area of Ma'aleh Adumim.
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