Livni: Israel not expanding settlements

FM tells Harvard students expansion "unhelpful;" Israel worried about "skewed" Fraser report.

livni west bank 224.88 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)
livni west bank 224.88
(photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)
On the eve of a US report which is expected to be particularly critical of Israeli implementation of its road map obligations, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni downplayed a recent decision by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to unfreeze a 750-unit housing project in Givat Ze'ev, saying that it was not government policy to expand settlements, Reuters reported. "It's not the Israeli government's policy to expand settlements these days," Livni told students at Harvard University. "We decided to stop settlement activities." She went on to characterize the planned expansion of Givat Ze'ev as "not dramatic," but said that other expansion activities would be "unhelpful." Meanwhile, senior government officials said on Wednesday that Israel was bracing for a "skewed" report from US Lt.-Gen. William Fraser on Israeli and Palestinian implementation of road map obligations. Fraser is set to meet on Friday with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. "The expectation is that his report will be bad for Israel, with an emphasis on expansion of the settlements, not dismantling the outposts, and not removing roadblocks," the government official said. He said the sense in Jerusalem was that the Palestinians would "get off easy" in the report, largely because PA President Mahmoud Abbas would not be held accountable for the situation in Gaza. Under the first stage of the road map peace plan, the Palestinians must declare an unequivocal end to violence and terrorism and take visible efforts on the ground to "arrest, disrupt and restrain" people and groups planning attacks on Israelis. Likewise, a rebuilt PA security apparatus must begin operations "aimed at confronting all those engaged in terror, and dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure." The official said that while none of this was happening in Gaza, Abbas was likely to get a pass because he was no longer in control there. In Israel's perception, however, the road map applies equally to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The document calls on Israel to dismantle all settlement outposts established after March 2001 and to freeze "all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)." Perhaps foreshadowing criticism from the Fraser report, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday at a hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations that the US "considers the expansion of settlement activity to be inconsistent with Israeli obligations under the road map, and we have made that very clear. I have also said that it is certainly not helpful for the peace process." In response to a query about whether US aid had been used to build homes in the settlements, she said, "I can assure you that we are following very closely to assure that US dollars are not being used to support the settlement activity." Rice, who met with Livni in Washington on Tuesday, said both sides must fulfill their road map commitments. The Prime Minister's Office gave no response to Rice's comments. However, Israel has said in the past that its interpretation of the road map allows it to build in large settlement blocs likely to be retained during a final-status agreement with the Palestinians. Still, it has frozen the issuance of new construction permits in Judea and Samaria for half a year, even as building has continued under the old ones. In some cases, it also froze existing projects. This week, it released some of the frozen projects designed to provide housing for the haredi community. The largest of those, the 750-unit housing project for the new neighborhood in Givat Ze'ev, was reapproved by the prime minister on Sunday. On Tuesday, the haredi settlement of Betar Illit was given the go-ahead to proceed with a 32-unit project, according to the city's deputy mayor, Shlomo Sharabi. Shas Party leader Eli Yishai said on Tuesday that he expected further projects to be approved in the settlement blocs. According to a document obtained this week by The Jerusalem Post, signed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak's settlement adviser Eitan Broshi, permission has already been given or will soon be given for additional projects. Included in the list were projects in Ma'aleh Adumim, Ariel, Efrat, Sha'arei Tikva and Elkana. The heads of Ma'aleh Adumim, Ariel and Elkana said Wednesday that they had not been granted permission to build those projects. The civil administration said that some of the projects on the list had been approved and some had not, but they would not specify. The Prime Minister's Office said it did not know of additional settlement construction projects beyond the Givat Ze'ev one. In a related development, visiting Quartet envoy Tony Blair, who has been in the region since Sunday evening, met separately Wednesday with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. A meeting Blair had originally planned for Sunday between Israeli and Palestinian businessmen was "postponed" because the recent surge in violence in Gaza, along with the attack at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, did not make the atmosphere conducive to such a conference, according to one diplomatic source. Blair and Barak were joined in their meeting by US security envoy James Jones, who is drawing up a security plan for the day after any future Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank. A spokesman for Blair said he understood that the rocket attacks from Gaza needed to be dealt with, but also felt Israel's overall strategy toward the Strip needed to change because it was not impacting the people at whom it was directed - namely Hamas. Jpost staff contributed this report.