U.S., Israel clash over settlements in West Bank

Netanyahu denies ever promising Clinton he would halt expansion

April 22, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HAREL, Occupied West Bank -- When U.S. officials press Israel about the trailers appearing on new hilltops in this stretch of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says they are not new settlements, just extensions of decades-old ones.

But Shivi Drory knows better. He joined two other families on this rocky ridge in the Samarian hills last fall.

They founded Harel on land belonging to Shilo, a settlement of 180 families established in 1978. But a major West Bank road separates Harel from Shilo's hilltops. Harel isn't just a new neighborhood, Drory and others say.

"Formally, it's part of Shilo," Drory said of the community founded in the name of a settler who was killed in a terrorist attack last year. "Actually, it's something independent. That's the truth."

Harel is among more than a dozen Jewish communities established in the occupied territories since the Oct. 23 signing of the Wye River accord, a U.S brokered-addendum to the 1993 Oslo peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

The settled hilltops are now at the center of a contentious debate between the Clinton administration and Israel's hard-line prime minister over the fate of the stalled peace process.

This month, in uncharacteristic bluntness, U.S. officials spoke out against Israel.

They accused Netanyahu of breaking promises made during the Wye talks. The settlement issue has taken on new urgency as the May 5 end of the five-year experiment in peacemaking approaches. It also is a factor in the May 17 elections. Netanyahu needs the votes of nationalist, religious settlers to win re-election.

Accelerated expansion

James P. Rubin, the State Department spokesman, charged that Netanyahu "told us on many occasions that as a matter of policy, there would be no new settlements and no expansion of settlements beyond their contiguous periphery."

"Contrary to what we were told, we see an accelerated pattern of Israeli actions that involve both construction of new settlements as well as expansion of settlements well beyond their contiguous periphery," he said.

That escalation jeopardizes prospects of achieving a lasting peace between the two sides, Rubin said.

The Oslo accords state that the future of the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip will be decided in final status talks, which have long been delayed. Although the accords don't specifically discuss settlements, they bar Israel and the Palestinians from taking unilateral actions that would change the status quo.

Rubin's comments echoed a tough statement made by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright to Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon during his recent visit to Washington.

Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk, the administration's top Mideast policy-maker, expressed similar concerns in a recent meeting with Netanyahu in Israel.

"At a time when we are working very hard to ensure that unilateral actions on the Palestinian side are not taken -- and we have invested a lot of effort in ensuring that there will be no unilateral declaration of independence [by the Palestinians]," Indyk said. "We also have a responsibility to ensure that other actions are not taken which can affect the environment for negotiations, which can prejudge those negotiations."

But Netanyahu, who froze implementation of the land-for-security Wye accords in December, made no apologies for his expansion policy when he appeared with Indyk at a press conference. On the contrary, he insisted settlement expansion will continue.

"We see things from a different perspective, as have most Israeli governments since 1967," Netanyahu said. "And in this we really do not always see eye to eye, but it is important to me to say that I have advanced this policy at every stage, and it is important to say that there was no agreement.

`Mistaken impression'?

"Maybe there was a mistaken impression that there was such an agreement, but there was no such agreement. In any event, we act according to our understanding of the Israeli interest, and we will continue doing so."

Assessing settlement expansion is problematic.

Each side in the fight offers different numbers of settlers and settlements. Israel's Defense Ministry, charged with giving final approval to settlement construction, won't identify plans they have approved.

Since Netanyahu's election in 1996, the number of settlers has increased from 141,000 to 187,000, according to Amana, a settlement organization. But more than half moved into houses whose construction began under the previous Labor governments, which negotiated the Oslo accords, a spokesman said.

But construction also is up. Between 1997 and 1998, housing starts in the West Bank doubled to 3,900, according to Israel's Bureau of Central Statistics.

Israel's Civil Administration, which presides over housing matters in the occupied territories, says at least 12 of the new Israeli communities in the West Bank have been built within the scope of a nearby settlement's master plan.

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