Mayor doubts Olmert's E1 building pledge

Ma'aleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel has cast doubt on the commitment Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made in newspaper interviews last week to construct a controversial building project between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim within four years. "Based on experience, I am wary of believing pre-election declarations," Kashriel said in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post. Kashriel's tepid reaction to Olmert's remarks was not surprising in so much as he is also a Likud party member. Olmert told the Post last week that if he became prime minister, he would go ahead with the E1 Development Plan within the next four years. The long-planned construction of 3,650 housing units on the outskirts of the West Bank's largest settlement, part of a decade-old government initiative to link the suburban community to the capital, has been subject to fierce Palestinian and international condemnation and to American opposition. Supporters of the construction say it would strengthen Israel's control of Jerusalem, while Israeli and Palestinian critics say it would permanently render territorial continuity impossible on land Palestinians want for a future state. Kashriel said that before the last elections, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made a similar pledge to build in the area, only to hold off on the plans during his time in office. He said three steps were required before construction could start, steps that could take years. These entail depositing the building plans with regulatory authorities, gaining approval for the plans and putting the plots of land up for sale, he said. "If he is really serious about building in the area, he should let us get started on the first step," Kashriel said. He said Olmert had told him that he would only make a decision on the matter after the March 28 election. Olmert's pledge to build E1 within the next four years came six months after he became the first senior Israeli official to publicly confirm that Israel had frozen the plan due to American pressure. At the time, Olmert told the Post that Israel had given the freeze commitment to the Americans earlier in 2005, when final approval of the E1 plan seemed imminent. Since then, Olmert's chief political rival, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, has repeatedly seized on the the freeze to call into question the government's commitment to strengthen both Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs, such as Ma'aleh Adumim. Olmert's statements last week were seen both as an effort to rebuff attacks by Netanyahu and to court the centrist vote. Ma'aleh Adumim has long been considered by most Israelis as one of several West Bank settlement blocs that would be incorporated into Israel as part of any final peace treaty or unilateral drawing of the country' borders.