Israel presses ahead with plans to build 50 new homes in West Bank

Disclosure comes week after Bush urged against expansion of settlements

April 19, 2005|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Brushing aside an explicit U.S. call to refrain from expanding Jewish settlements, Israel disclosed plans yesterday to build 50 new homes in the northern West Bank.

Although the planned addition to the community of Elkana is relatively small, the disclosure came only one week after President Bush met at his Texas ranch with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and publicly urged Israel to refrain from any new settlement activity.

Expansion of settlements is banned under the U.S.-supported peace plan known as the "road map," though the two sides differ on what constitutes improper activity on Israel's part.

The Sharon government argues that Jewish settlements are entitled to what it calls "natural growth" - populations that increase due to factors such as births or denser buildup that takes place within established settlement boundaries.

The White House said it would seek clarification from the Israeli government about the latest expansion plans.

"I think the president made his views very clear last week ... that Israel should not expand settlements," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

McClellan noted that Sharon "reiterated his commitment to the road map" during his meeting with the president last week.

"The road map has obligations for both parties," he said. "Israel should not be expanding settlements, and the Palestinian leaders need to act to dismantle terrorists' organizations."

Last week's meeting was preceded by an Israeli disclosure of a much larger development planned outside the West Bank's largest Jewish settlement, Maale Adumim. That blueprint calls for the construction of more than 3,500 housing units in a sensitive location, wedged in rocky hills between traditionally Arab East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.

Continued settlement activity by the Sharon government has left the Bush administration in a quandary.

For instance, U.S. strategy calls for propping up Sharon against raging opposition from Jewish settlers to the planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer. Residents in the 21 settlements in the seaside territory and four small communities in the northern West Bank are to be uprooted.

But even as the Bush administration applauds the withdrawal, U.S. officials do not want to give Sharon carte blanche to lay claim to additional territory in the West Bank. The Israeli leader has clearly signaled that it is his intention to retain large, established settlement blocks that lie close to the "Green Line," the de facto border that separated Israel from the West Bank before the 1967 Middle East war.

The Bush administration offered assurances to Sharon a year ago that it would support such communities becoming part of Israel in any peace settlement with the Palestinians. That position was essentially repeated at last week's summit, with Bush saying that "existing major Israeli population centers" in the West Bank would have to be taken into account when drawing the borders of a future Palestinian state.

Palestinians, though, fear that Sharon is using the U.S. desire to help along the Gaza withdrawal as a pretext to expand all settlements close to the Green Line. Elkana, south of the Palestinian city of Kalkilya, is less than three miles from the boundary.

The Palestinian Authority reacted to the latest Israeli expansion plan with dismay.

"We urge the Bush administration not to close its eyes, while focusing on the Gaza [withdrawal], to hundreds of housing units being added in West Bank settlements," the Palestinians' chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said. "This is harming efforts to achieve the vision of a two-state solution."

Palestinians fear that, even if Gaza is handed over more or less intact, they could find themselves with "islands" of territory in the West Bank, dashing their hopes for a viable state.

Also yesterday, Sharon indicated that he might be prepared to delay the Gaza pullout by three weeks to accommodate a traditional Jewish mourning period commemorating the destruction of temples in ancient times, even though any change in the timetable flies in the face of advice given by his senior military commanders.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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