'Israel is not rolling back freeze'

Israel assures US it is

The US was not apprised in advance of plans to place dozens of settlements in the revised national priorities map that will be brought to the cabinet on Sunday, but it has been assured that the incentives to be given in these areas will have nothing to do with housing or construction, The Jerusalem Post has learned. Senior officials in the Prime Minister's Office said conversations had been held with Washington on the matter on Thursday, and it had been explained that the national priorities map was one that took in scores of communities from around the country, and that the settlements would not be eligible for any assistance having to do with housing. The US was also told that this was in no way an attempt to roll back the 10-month moratorium on housing starts. Similarly, senior government officials said Thursday, the establishment of a committee led by Likud Minister Bennie Begin and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to take a look at how the moratorium was being implemented was not an attempt to roll back the moratorium. According to the officials, the implementation order in the government's decision to stop new housing is much stricter than the decision itself, and the committee is now trying to correct the difference, which may even entail rewriting the original order to bring it more into line with security cabinet decision. Despite these assurances, however, Begin, who voted in favor of the 10-month construction moratorium, stated on Thursday that even with the stop-work orders, "construction continues and will continue for the next 10 months." Making his comments at a gathering in Tel Aviv, Begin said that the government had not decided on a construction freeze in the customary meaning of the term. Rather, "if we are seeking to clarify the conditions... we are not planning on freezing life in Judea and Samaria." Furthermore, Begin said, "we are not discriminating between isolated settlements and those considered to be within the parameters of the agreement. Had we agreed to such a distinction, we would be, in essence, setting the borders before the start of negotiations." Begin went on to say that in the next 10 months, the population of Judea and Samaria would grow by more than 10,000 people. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made clear when he declared the moratorium two weeks ago that some 3,000 units in various stages of the construction process would continue to be built. According to officials in the Prime Minister's Office, nearly two million people were impacted positively by the decision on the national priority areas, with only 5 percent of them - some 110,000 people - living beyond the Green Line. The whole national priorities map idea is being explained abroad as a type of Israeli "affirmative action," giving preferential treatment to areas that suffer because of distance from the Center, acute security concerns, poverty or education gaps. The senior government officials said the Begin-Barak committee would look into the practicalities of the freeze's implementation. "If the security cabinet decision on the freeze could be called Beit Hillel," one official said, using a Talmudic reference to a school that took a more lenient approach on most halachic matters, "the implementation has been according to Beit Shamai" - a school that took a stricter approach. The implementation order, he said, was more sweeping than the government decision. For example, the official said, anyone in the settlements who now sought a permit to add an air conditioner or close in a porch had to seek permits from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, and not the local municipality - something that was not the security cabinet's intention. "We are trying to clarify matters, not change the government decision," the official said. The state, meanwhile, informed the High Court of Justice - which is due to hear petitions next week against the decision to freeze settlement construction - that it intended to issue a revised moratorium order that, among other things, would take into account some of the settlers' complaints. According to Peace Now, meanwhile, some 90 out of the 121 settlements beyond the Green Line are on the new national priority list. According to their figures, this represents some 143,000 people. Peace Now said this could make them eligible for extra assistance in tax breaks, grants, employment and industrial support, technological funding, housing loans, development costs and financial assistance in the construction of public buildings. Pinchas Wallerstein, director-general of the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, said the only help the settlements had received in past years as a result of being on the list was in education, employment, health and security. Neither the settlements nor their residents received tax breaks as a result of being on the list, said Wallerstein. Council head Dani Dayan added that the primary assistance was in security-related matters. Security was an important criteria for the list, and settlements were among Israel's vulnerable communities, he said. Dayan noted that the most dramatic change in the list was the inclusion of Israeli Arab communities. The previous list, he said, included only 8% of the Israeli Arab population, while the new list included 40%. Hagit Ofran of Peace Now said that the decision was based on multiple factors, such as geography, security and socioeconomics, but the government was empowered to consider a wide range of factors. She said the settlements in isolated areas posed a problem for the government, because some of the West Bank Jewish communities that needed the most help were particularly problematic from a diplomatic perspective. Still, she said, she viewed the decision as a political one that endangered the peace process. Ofran noted that the map included four communities that were not officially settlements: Shvut Rahel, which Peace Now considers a settlement but which appeared as an outpost in Talia Sasson's 2005 report on the subject; Geva'ot, which technically should be part of Alon Shvut; Sansana, which is part of the Eshkolot; and Brosh, a Jordan Valley community that was once an army base and is now a vacation spot. Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.