Israel freezes plan to add 3,500 West Bank housing units

But work will be done eventually, official says


JERUSALEM - Israel has bowed to the United States and frozen a much-criticized plan to add 3,500 new housing units near a large West Bank settlement called Maale Adumim, according to Ehud Olmert, a close ally of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his vice prime minister.

But Olmert's comments, made in an interview published yesterday in The Jerusalem Post, were more an indication of political repositioning in Israel's heated right-wing political competition than any enunciation of new policy. Israel has made it clear many times that any building near Maale Adumim, in the development area known as E-1, would not begin for at least two to three years.

Palestinians and the Israeli left - including the Labor Party, currently in the government - object to the plans because E-1 would complete a circle of Jewish settlement around East Jerusalem, cutting it off from the West Bank. Washington has insisted without much more than rhetorical force that Sharon keep his promises to stop expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank, even if Israel keeps putting up housing within existing settlement boundaries in the name of "natural growth."

Sharon faces a fight for the leadership of his Likud Party from the former finance minister and prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

But Olmert also emphasized that the government is committed to the construction in E-1 at some point. "When the conditions are right, we'll raise the issue with the Americans again," he said. "It's clear we won't do anything behind the backs of the Americans."

In the meantime, Sharon promises to continue building in the West Bank and is moving ahead with constructing the rest of the separation barrier between Israelis and Palestinians, including a new stretch around Maale Adumim. The barrier, where it cuts into the West Bank, is considered illegal by the International Court of Justice.

Yesterday, as on almost every Friday now, a demonstration by Palestinian, Israeli and foreign protesters against the building of the barrier near the West Bank village of Bilin produced arrests and injuries. The Israeli army has declared the area a closed military zone to try to stop the protests, which continue.

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