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(photo credit: AP [file])
Settler leaders charged on Tuesday that a deal had been struck with the United States and the Palestinians to freeze new construction in the settlements before the Middle East peace conference scheduled for the end of the month in Annapolis.
They made the charge after meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem earlier in the day and in light of the recent cancellation of previously approved West Bank projects.
"We had the impression that freezing construction was a nod to the Americans and the Palestinians," said Dani Dayan, chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.
He clarified that Olmert had not stated that such a deal had been struck when he met with Dayan and four other council members, but such had been their impression when they had raised the issue of the halt in settlement construction.
The council had initially believed that the problem, which first came to light over a month ago, was connected to the issue of unauthorized outposts, Dayan said.
"Today we do not think so," he added. "We think it is connected to diplomatic negotiations."
According to Ran Nahman, mayor of the West Bank city of Ariel, permits that had been granted for the construction of 48 housing units in his city were rescinded a few days ago.
The Prime Minister's Office had no comment on the matter. However, diplomatic sources said it was important to remember that Israel had already agreed to the road map, which calls for a halt in settlement construction.
"But we are not there yet," one diplomatic source added.
According to Dayan, the prime minister did not address during the meeting the settlers' concerns about the construction freeze in the settlements.
A source at the meeting said Olmert had told the settlers he shared their fears and feelings for the land of Israel.
"I have no doubt that the land of Israel, from the Jordan river to the sea, is connected to the history and tradition of our people," the source quoted Olmert as saying.
Additionally, Olmert said he worried about the ideological alienation that could occur if further territorial concessions were made.
"But to safeguard Israel's future as a democratic and Jewish nation, we have to make concessions," he said. "Still, there are places from which I would never withdraw, and the Palestinians and the Americans know this. I have told it to them clearly."
He also told the council members that he admired their devotion to the country, their volunteer spirit and the educational ideals of honor and respect that they instilled in their children. Olmert said he would meet with them in the future to update them on the negotiations.
Dayan, meanwhile, said he had warned the prime minister at the meeting that a large-scale territorial withdrawal that would likely involve more than 100,000 people could not be compared to the Gaza evacuation of 8,500 families.
"It's like a tsunami," he said. "Anyone who thinks otherwise doesn't understand where he lives."
The feeling of societal alienation in the aftermath of such a large evacuation would "break the backbone of Israeli society," he said.
Furthermore, he warned, Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would endanger Israel's security.
"It is clear that [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] won't last," said Dayan, noting that if Hamas took over the West Bank, it could easily attack Israeli communities, including the airport.
"Olmert is leading Israel to a disaster and is ignoring the harm that would be caused," he declared.
The council had asked for a meeting with Olmert a year and a half ago, when he first entered office in May 2006, but was only granted an audience with him this week, said Dayan. They last met with Olmert when he was acting prime minister in January 2006.
Dayan was joined at Tuesday's meeting by his deputy assistant Sarah Eliash and former council head Benzi Lieberman, as well as council members Ze'ev (Zambish) Hever and Tzvika Bar-Hai.
Following the meeting, the council decided it had to increase its fight against Olmert's plans, including lobbying efforts, public relations campaigns and public rallies.
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