Israel OKs enlargement of Jerusalem Towns, settlements would become part of capital area

Palestinians outraged

Netanyahu defends move as Albright voices displeasure


JERUSALEM -- The Israeli Cabinet approved a plan yesterday to expand the city of Jerusalem's control far beyond its current borders, despite angry protests from Palestinians and Washington's warning that the plan was "provocative."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a news conference after the unanimous decision that the plan had no political ramifications and was not a violation of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, under which the final status of Jerusalem is to be negotiated with the Palestinians.

But there was a general presumption among Israelis and Palestinians that the real goals were to strengthen Israel's hold on what it has proclaimed as its "united and eternal capital," to bolster its links to eastern settlements, and to expand its Jewish population and tax base by annexing wealthier and more secular towns in Israel to the west.

The Palestinians, who have proclaimed their goal to be a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, issued a chorus of denunciations.

"This is a declaration of war on the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem," declared Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian official.

The plan adopted by the Cabinet, referred to as "the plan for strengthening of Jerusalem's status," set out guidelines under which Jerusalem would expand the area under its control by roughly half. This would be done in part by annexing several Israeli towns in the "Jerusalem corridor" to the west, and by bringing several Jewish communities and settlements on land conquered in 1967 to the east and north under an "umbrella municipality," with Jerusalem responsible for planning, construction, budget matters and services.

All this, Netanyahu said, was within Israel's right, and "an internal Israeli matter, not a matter requiring a diplomatic report."

But in Washington, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said on the NBC News program "Meet the Press" that she called Netanyahu after hearing of the action and made U.S. displeasure clear.

"I told him that it was being viewed as something that was not helpful to the peace process, because in this very delicate environment, unilateral actions are not the kind that are helpful," she said.

On Friday, the day after the Israeli plan was made public, State Department spokesman James Rubin said: "We believe it is extremely hard to understand why Israel would even consider taking such a provocative step at this sensitive time in the negotiations."

Albright held a conference call with American Jewish leaders to voice displeasure with the scheme, and then talked to Netanyahu by telephone Saturday.

Netanyahu said yesterday that initial reaction to the plan was "distorted and misinterpreted in a tendentious way." He said Washington's angry initial reaction was evidently based on a misunderstanding, adding: "I think their whole response in this matter was surprising and superfluous."

"The criticism that there was some violation of agreements that Israel has signed is ridiculous," he told Israeli army radio earlier in the day. "Israel's activities in Jerusalem are in accordance with agreements and with the historic decree of the Jewish people."

The loudest initial protest yesterday came not from Palestinians or the United States, but from residents of the Israeli towns to be annexed, especially Mevasseret Zion. Some of the residents of the towns are people who moved out of Jerusalem to escape the spread of its rigorously Orthodox neighborhoods, and who vigorously oppose coming under Jerusalem's control. They tried to block the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway yesterday, leading to scuffles with police in which eight people were arrested.

The United States has been negotiating with Israel for a further Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank that would enable the long-stalled negotiations with Palestinians to enter a final phase. The future of Jerusalem is one of the central issues to be resolved.

According to the newspaper Haaretz, the plan adopted yesterday was based on a secret Cabinet resolution adopted in February 1997. Yesterday's decision set guidelines and created a committee of experts to prepare concrete recommendations on the structure of the "umbrella municipality," as well as the exact list of localities to be annexed. The committee is to report back after the summer.

Though the Cabinet decision did not list specific areas, reports in Israeli newspapers said that in areas that were captured from Jordan in 1967, the authority of the "umbrella municipality" was expected to reach several large and small Jewish neighborhoods, including Maale Adumim to the east and Givat Zeev to the north, as well as such smaller settlements as Givon and Adam.

The arrangement would enable Jerusalem to expand and strengthen the settlements and to fortify their ties with Jerusalem, with new roads and tunnels.

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