W. Bank projects color Barak's US trip

Givat Ze'ev facing huge growth boom; defense minister to try reach settlement deal with Mitchell.

barak mitchell laugh about iran 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
barak mitchell laugh about iran 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
As Defense Minister Ehud Barak heads to the US to hammer out a deal on settlement construction, the Givat Ze'ev settlement, located just northwest of Jerusalem, is about to experience its largest population boom in at least 10 years, and possibly since its founding in 1983. Located along Route 443, Givat Ze'ev, which in 2008 had 11,000 residents, has grown by just 700 people in the previous eight years. The growth was fueled mostly by births, as more people left than moved in. But this year, work is nearing completion on more than 300 homes, authorized under former prime minister Ehud Olmert, and the town is waiting for signatures on 380 more, which Olmert had also said would be approved. The town should grow by about 1,000 people in 2009 - the kind of growth previously seen only in the largest settlement cities of Modi'in Illit, with a population of 41,700, Betar Illit with 34,700 and Ma'aleh Adumim with 33,800. A "settlement freeze" that would suspend all construction would heavily impact Givat Ze'ev and these other large settlements that routinely build several hundred apartments a year. In Modi'in Illit in 2008, for example, work was begun on 600 apartments. On Sunday, Givat Ze'ev Council head Yossi Avrahami said he feared "we will have to fight for the 380" apartment units that need final approval, even as he expressed confidence that the remainder of the construction authorized in his settlement would continue, no matter what happened in the US. Barak is scheduled to meet in New York on Monday with US Mideast envoy George Mitchell to hammer out an agreement on the issue. The defense minister on Sunday denied reports that Israel had decided to freeze all Jewish building in the West Bank for three months, including for natural growth, saying there had been no agreement on this yet in Jerusalem. "The relations and understandings with the US are very important to Israel," Barak said prior to Sunday's cabinet meeting, adding that Israel supported regional peace initiatives which include negotiations with the Palestinians. But the Palestinian Authority has conditioned negotiations with Israel on a total settlement freeze, something that has never happened since the first settlement, Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, was founded 42 yeas ago. Barak said that this issue, which he called "the issue in the headlines," had not been fully agreed upon in Israel. "As I already said, the issue in the headlines has not been agreed upon, and it is clear that among the range of issues with the Americans regarding the regional situation - the agreement with the Palestinians, the chances of an agreement with the Syrians, the hope that this will yield an agreement also with Lebanon - all these things are still in the early stages and are very important to us, and will all be discussed," he said. "But the issue itself as was presented in the headlines is an issue that has not been agreed upon." Yediot Aharonot reported on Sunday that Barak would recommend a settlement freeze for three months to restart the negotiations with the PA. Barak - according to the paper - will also tell the Americans that Israel does plan to continue finishing building some 2,000 housing units that are in advanced stages of construction. Among the items expected to be on the agenda in the discussions with the Americans are how to define a settlement freeze, at what stage construction would be stopped, and beyond what stage of construction would houses be allowed to be completed. The report struck a nerve in both Givat Ze'ev and Ma'aleh Adumim, both places where the Likud garnered more votes than any other party in February's national election. It's not the first time in the current government's short history that it and settler leaders have been at odds. Since Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's return from Washington last month, settler leaders have said they fear he would not authorize any new construction permits in Judea and Samaria, including in the large settlement cities situated close to the Green Line where the bulk of settlement growth has occurred in the past decade. No building permits have been authorized anywhere in the West Bank since November. On Sunday, settler leaders scrambled to verify reports of a freeze on ongoing construction, even as they said they did not believe such a step was possible. "There is a strong majority within the coalition and within the government, Defense Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office that opposes even a temporary freeze," said Dani Dayan, who heads the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. In Ma'aleh Adumim, where workers are building some 400 apartments, Mayor Benny Kashriel, who is a member of the Likud Central Committee, said he had tried with no success to verify the media reports. "It would go against promises Netanyahu made both before and right after the elections," Kashriel said. He promised that if the reports were true, Netanyahu could expect vigorous opposition both from within the Likud and on the part of settler leaders. He added that there were technical difficulties with freezing ongoing construction that involved breaking contracts with contractors and buyers who had already purchased apartments. Kashriel warned that court cases would quickly be opened in response to any deal to freeze construction that Barak might work out. When one drives through Givat Ze'ev one can see that work is almost completed on some 250 apartments in a new haredi neighborhood, in a settlement that has a broad population mix, from secular to modern Orthodox and haredi. Another 80 units are expected to be completed soon after in the project, which is known as Agan Ha'ayalot. An issue for Givat Ze'ev is the remaining 380 apartments, which Olmert promised would be authorized, but for which final signatures are pending, according to Avrahami. The project, which was initially authorized in 1999, was frozen in 2000, at the start of the second intifada, when violence along Route 443 that leads to Givat Ze'ev made it hard to attract investors and buyers. Olmert allowed the project to move forward in 2008, after contractors who had found new investors and buyers by targeting the haredi market sued the state. Also under construction in Givat Ze'ev are several hundred additional apartments authorized under Olmert, of which at least 100 are expected to be finished this year. Following Sunday's cabinet meeting, Netanyahu met together with Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Likud Ministers Dan Meridor and Bennie Begin to discuss the upcoming Barak-Mitchell meeting. Netanyahu, who postponed a meeting with Mitchell last Thursday in Paris, is expected to meet with the envoy once the settlements issue is ironed out. One diplomatic official noted that it was telling that Barak, not Lieberman, who was leading the negotiations with the US on this matter, a stark contrast to when Tzipi Livni was foreign minister and was closely involved in the discussions with the US. The official said it was not clear whether the US preferred dealing with Barak rather than Lieberman; whether Netanyahu was keen on distancing Lieberman from this issue because of the foreign minister's uncompromising position on the matter; or whether the Israel Beiteinu chairman himself did not want to get involved in the settlement issue so he would not eventually be seen as one of the architects of a policy opposed by most of his party's constituents.