Shas announces settlement expansion

As Bush arrives to prod sides on borders issue, Eli Yishai says building beyond Green Line will go on.

eli yishai 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
eli yishai 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Just hours before US President George W. Bush's arrival in Israel Wednesday, Shas chairman Eli Yishai made a point of announcing that building beyond the Green Line would continue. During an interview on Israel Radio, Yishai said Construction and Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim would announce several new building projects, including continued building in the haredi town of Betar Illit, located in the southwestern hills of Jerusalem with a population of about 36,000. "I am happy that... they will approve the construction," Yishai said, referring to building projects in Judea and Samaria that had been frozen due to US pressure. Yishai's spokesman Ro'i Lahmanovich rejected the claim that Yishai had intentionally made the statements about building in the settlements in an attempt to foil Bush's attempts to prod Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. "Eli has been concerned about the building freeze in Betar for a long time," Lahmanovich told The Jerusalem Post. "Just last night, Eli was assured that the freeze would be lifted and building would proceed after Bush left the area." Boim spokesman Eran Sidis said the minister denied the report about the approval of hundreds of housing units in Betar Illit. He declined to comment further - leaving open the possibility that construction would be announced some other time. Yishai's announcement was viewed by Palestinians as an obstacle to peace. They said the planned construction reported by Shas would be on land the Palestinians wanted for a future state and could make it even harder for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to convince his people that diplomacy, not violence, would win them a state. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the equivocal statements coming from Boim's office weren't helping peacemaking. "Are they trying to deceive us, or somebody else?" he asked. "I really believe they must make up their mind. It's Israeli settlements or peace. They can't have both." The US administration has said settlement construction is not helpful to the peace efforts. Abbas briefly called off the negotiations earlier this year to protest settlement expansion. At the resumption of talks last year, Israel and the Palestinians set a December 2008 target for reaching a peace deal. But both sides and the US have cast doubt recently on whether that goal is realistic. An Olmert spokesman said he did not know of plans to announce construction. However, he said building in Betar Illit would not contradict Olmert's recent statements on the subject. Olmert recently told a Kadima faction meeting that he was committed to building in Betar Illit and other large settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria. The road map peace plan that forms the basis of negotiations renewed in November with US backing obliges Israel to halt all settlement construction. But Israel contends that prohibition does not apply to settlement blocs it hopes to retain in any accord with the Palestinians. "We have said there will be no new settlements, no expropriation of land for the purpose of settlement construction and no policy to allow the outward growth of settlements," Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said.