US unclear on settlement construction

PM: We won't freeze anything in the built-up West Bank that will remain part of Israel.

Beitar Construction 224. (photo credit: Courtesy [file])
Beitar Construction 224.
(photo credit: Courtesy [file])
The United States has not publicly clarified its position on allowing continued construction in the major settlement blocs despite plans to monitor and judge the legitimacy of such activity following last week's Annapolis conference. The ambiguity raises new questions about how the US will operate as referee of road map implementation, as outlined at Annapolis, and how willing it is to enter the fray to decide on one of the most sensitive issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians. Despite differing Palestinian and Israeli assessments of what type of settlement activity is allowed, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's recent comments that construction in the major blocs would continue, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Thursday that, "I'm not going to get into interpretations at this point." He referred to a "process that plays out over time" whereby the road map "will be fully implemented." He also said that "the end result, we hope, is going to be a final agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. They will define what the contents of that agreement are." He added, "I'm not going to try to analyze where we are any further beyond what the president has said, the secretary has said in public, along with [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert." But some observers have said that what US President George W. Bush committed to during his speech at the Annapolis conference on Tuesday was significantly less stringent than the road map's language on settlements. Former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk argued Wednesday that even though the joint statement called on Israel to fulfill its obligations under the road map, Bush then "changed the obligations that are spelled out in the road map." Indyk said, "The road map is very clear. It says a settlement freeze, including natural growth, whereas President Bush yesterday talked about no enlargement of settlements." Israel has traditionally interpreted that stricture - of no enlargement or "ending settlement expansion" in Bush's words Tuesday - as not allowing expansion of the settlements' borders but permitting construction of new units in already-populated areas. That perspective was the one articulated by Olmert Wednesday when he spoke with reporters as he left Washington. "We will not freeze anything in the built-up developed [West Bank] areas we believe will be in Israel in the future. There is already enough we will have to do that will be painful and heartbreaking," Olmert said. In response, McCormack said that Olmert has "made public commitments. He's made private commitments to us. Those are consonant. There are obligations under the road map and Prime Minister Olmert has made implementation, full implementation, of the road map one of his goals." A State Department official told The Jerusalem Post that this matter would be clarified "quickly," given that the State Department was dispatching former NATO commander James Jones to the region to measure the compliance of both sides with the road map. One Israeli government source told the Post that it was Israel's understanding that Bush's Annapolis statement meant that Israel could build within the construction lines in the settlements but not beyond it. The source added that on this score, Israel and the US were in agreement. A second source, however, acknowledged that ambiguity existed on the issue of settlement construction and that the Annapolis conference had not been intended to close the gap on this issue. The construction issue would be worked out in subsequent conversations between the Israelis and Palestinians, the second source said. But the Palestinians are insisting on the language of the road map, which states that, "Consistent with the Mitchell Report, Israel freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)." But Israel is relying on Bush's letter to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2004, which hinted that Israel might keep major settlement blocs. In this case, Israel feels it has the prerogative to continue building in those areas. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, at least 6,505 housing units have been completed in West Bank settlements since 2004. An additional 603 were begun in the first half of this year. Settlers on the ground fear that any new back-and-forth, such as that alluded to by McCormack, could lead the US to renege on a promise they believe had been made to them that Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip had secured the future of the large West Bank settlements. "Where has this promise gone?" asked Hisdai Eliezer, who heads the Alfei Menashe council. A moderate settler and Kadima Party member, Eliezer left his post as deputy head of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip (Yesha) over a year ago. Now, he said, if a move were made to endanger the larger settlement blocs, he would consider returning. His and other settler leaders' fear is underscored by the freeze in new permits for West Bank construction in place since Defense Minister Ehud Barak took office last July. Yesha head Dani Dayan said he was not assuaged by Olmert's words that he would continue to build in the territories. "The fact is that all new permits are still frozen," he said. So until there was a change on the ground, Olmert's promises were meaningless, he said. Herb Keinon contributed to this report.