Olmert: We'll build in major settlement blocs

Prime Minister stands firm against Rice just before her departure on larger settlements, east Jerusalem.

PM hey Rice youre mad (photo credit: GPO)
PM hey Rice youre mad
(photo credit: GPO)
Bucking US pressure, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as well as his Kadima faction on Monday that he would continue to allow construction in West Bank settlement blocs and east Jerusalem. He spoke with Rice personally about the matter just as she wrapped up her two-day visit to Israel and headed to Jordan, and she took note of his position, a government source told The Jerusalem Post. After her departure, the Jerusalem Municipality announced plans to build 600 new apartments in Pisgat Ze'ev. Shas party leader Eli Yishai further announced that Olmert had promised him approval for 800 new apartment units in the West Bank settlement of Betar Illit. However, when in Jordan, as she stood at a press conference along with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Rice sharply criticized Israel's new construction plans. "Settlement activity should stop - expansion should stop," Rice said. She added that construction in east Jerusalem was "not consistent with road map obligations," according to a rough transcript of her remarks. She noted that a committee had been set up to deal with road map obligations and reiterated the importance of a final agreement in helping end the debate over "what belongs in Israel and what belongs in Palestine." The road map calls on Israel to freeze settlement activity. Israel, however, has long maintained that construction in east Jerusalem as well as in settlement blocs it is likely to retain as part of a final-status solution is in keeping with international understandings. "It is not true that we are building in violation of our obligations," Olmert said at a meeting of the Kadima faction in the Knesset. "We are not building new settlements, everyone must understand this," said Olmert, who underscored that Betar Illit "is not a new settlement." Olmert emphasized that building had not been frozen in Jerusalem neighborhoods that are located across the Green Line, and that building in Jerusalem would continue. Any reports to the contrary were false, he said. "We don't hide our views on Jerusalem and major settlement blocs, we are being honest about everything throughout the negotiations," said Olmert. His remarks were reported to the Shas faction, which on Monday afternoon met in Betar Illit and toured the city, which is the third largest West Bank settlement. Faction members who were on the bus tour cheered but were not surprised because they had heard from Yishai that he had spoken earlier in the day with Olmert and received similar assurances. Olmert in turn had also made a similar promise to Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in a noontime conversation. "It's imperative that we build here," said Yishai as he stood on a hilltop with a map in his hand. The tour came only a day after the United Torah Judaism faction met in the city and demanded that Shas leave the government. On Monday it submitted a no-confidence motion against the government on this issue, which failed to pass. But plastered on billboards throughout Betar Illit on Monday were black and white signs demanding that Shas leave and accusing it of contributing to a settlement freeze. Shas, which credits itself with breaking the construction freeze on new projects which has been in place since the fall, dismissed such charges as ridiculous. There will be construction in east Jerusalem and the settlements, promised Yishai. But the mayor of the second largest West Bank settlement city, Ma'aleh Adumim's Benny Kashriel, said that all new projects in his city remained frozen and that he had no faith in either Shas or Olmert. The prime minister feared that Shas would bolt the coalition and was trying to buy time to keep them in the government, said Kashriel. His coalition could not be brought down without a Knesset vote, so he was biding his time until mid-week, when the Knesset breaks for Pessah and does not reconvene until mid-May, Kashriel said. In the interim, Olmert's pattern has been to promise the project would go through, that he needed just a few more weeks, said Kashriel. At Monday's Likud faction meeting, party leader Binyamin Netanyahu called on Shas to leave the coalition. "The Olmert government is quickly advancing toward an agreement of principles that will place Jerusalem and the security of the country in danger," Netanyahu said. "If Shas wants to protect Jerusalem, what are they doing in the government? Leave the government and stop this dangerous process!" Netanyahu accused the government of freezing construction in the settlements to the point of not accommodating for their natural growth and of "freezing Jewish settlement while simultaneously encouraging Palestinian settlement." "In reality, Shas is already separate from the coalition," said Likud MK Yuli Edelstein following the meeting. "Our mission is to remind Shas that they have no business being in the coalition." Edelstein added that behind closed doors, even Shas MKs themselves admitted to "understanding that they are being used by Olmert." In return for Shas's maintained support, Edelstein said, Olmert "offers Shas a few sweets" such as the obligation to continue building in haredi settlement Betar Ilit and the construction of a new haredi neighborhood in Givat Ze'ev. Edelstein said that he believed that the coalition would not survive the upcoming summer session of the Knesset, which is set to begin in mid-May, as the closer the government comes to an agreement on negotiations, the harder it would become for Shas to remain in the coalition. The Likud is not planning to wait for the situation to slowly unravel. Later in the faction meeting, members decided to call for an operative meeting, led by party Director-General Gadi Arieli and including MKs and representatives of settlements, to draw up a new campaign focusing on the freezing of building projects in the West Bank, and particularly in the Jerusalem area. "We need to learn not just to preach to the converted, but to get the message out," said Edelstein. Kashriel told The Jerusalem Post that after Pessah he planned to launch a campaign to press the government to allow construction in his city. One step he was contemplating, he said, was opening temporary office quarters on the controversial E-1 site, where he wanted to build new apartments. Betar Illit Mayor Meir Rubinstein told The Jerusalem Post that if the 800 units did not come through, he would move his office to the Knesset cafeteria. He said he would bother another Shas MK every hour until they made good on their word. Peace Now, the non-profit group that monitors settlement construction, charged on Monday in a new report that there was no settlement freeze in place. It said that construction was ongoing in 101 settlements and that new construction had begun in 53 of them. In addition, some 184 new caravans were installed in the settlements in particular in Eli, Dolev, Psagot, Ofra, Kochav Hashahar and Yitzhar. Settler leader Dani Dayan said the report was inaccurate and filled with half-truths. It focused on construction that had begun before there was a freeze in place, whereas the issue was the government's failure to issue new permits for projects. Peace Now also charged that expansion and construction was ongoing in at least 56 of the 105 unauthorized outposts. In 58 outposts there was construction or development, including 16 new permanent structures in seven different outposts. Eight more permanent homes are in the process of being built. Defense Minister Ehud Barak's settlement adviser Eitan Broshi told Army Radio that construction in Judea and Samaria had not "totally dried up" and that it could not be stopped by "waving an ax." Broshi said that the Defense Ministry had spoken with settler leaders in recent months on the evacuation of illegal outposts after years in which nothing was done on the matter. Broshi asserted that no outposts had been established lately. In addition, Defense Ministry sources told the radio station that in the next few days, five illegal West Bank outposts would be evacuated in accordance with an agreement with settler leaders. The sources also said that settlers had been offered replacement sites instead of the Migron outpost. Dayan denied that any deal had been concluded on Migron. He added that there was no deal for the removal of outposts. Gil Hoffman, Hilary Leila Krieger and AP contributed to this report.