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Friday, March 25, 2005

The New York Times > International > Middle East > Rice Says U.S. Opposes Israeli Plan for Settlement Expansion

The New York Times > International > Middle East > Rice Says U.S. Opposes Israeli Plan for Settlement Expansion: March 26, 2005
Rice Says U.S. Opposes Israeli Plan for Settlement Expansion

JERUSALEM, March 25 - The United States' displeasure with Israel's intention to expand a West Bank settlement grew Friday, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice condemning the plan as "at odds with American policy."

In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, Ms. Rice said the Israeli response to American concerns was "not really a satisfactory response."

Israeli officials say the announcement about adding 3,500 homes to Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, is just a bureaucratic step, and point out that the houses will not be built for a few years. But Palestinian officials have complained that the Israeli intention is to cut off Jerusalem from the West Bank and destroy the contiguity of any future Palestinian state, and they reject any Israeli or American efforts to predetermine the outcome of negotiations.

The ambiguities surrounding American policy were underlined Friday when a diplomatic furor erupted over remarks reportedly made by the American ambassador to Israel, Daniel C. Kurtzer, in an off-the-record session nearly a month ago with new Israeli Foreign Ministry employees.

According to the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, which was leaked a copy of notes taken at the meeting, Mr. Kurtzer said Washington had never reached an understanding with Israel that would let it keep its large settlement blocks in the West Bank. The newspaper also quoted him as saying he expected Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government to fall before completing its term in November 2006.

Mr. Kurtzer angrily denied the Yediot story on Friday, saying he was misquoted and misunderstood. "What I tried to explain to them is exactly what U.S. policy is," he told Israeli radio and television on Friday. "And U.S. policy is the support that the president has given for the retention by Israel of major Israeli population centers as an outcome of negotiations."

Mr. Sharon's office said it believed that Mr. Kurtzer had been misquoted.

American officials said they believed that the leak was an effort by the foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, to boost his standing in Mr. Sharon's right-wing Likud Party and undermine him just before a crucial budget vote next week that could bring down the government.

A senior Sharon adviser said the leak was intended to undermine an important political accomplishment: understandings on the settlements that Mr. Sharon reached with President Bush last April.

Mr. Sharon has justified his plan to pull all 21 Israeli settlements out of Gaza (as well as four small ones on the West Bank) to his own party on the basis of his belief that Washington will support Israel's intention to keep its main settlement blocks around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

One key Likud member, Education Minister Limor Livnat, said Friday that she would not have agreed to support the Gaza withdrawal plan in the absence of Mr. Bush's commitments. Arye Eldad, a legislator from the right-wing National Union, said that "the prime minister's great fraud has been uncovered; Israel is not getting a thing in exchange for the transfer" of the Gaza settlers.

Diplomatic ambiguities are becoming more exposed, officials from both countries conceded. Washington has agreed that Israel can keep major population centers in the West Bank, presumably like Maale Adumim, and yet also insists that Israel do nothing to "prejudice the rights of other parties or the outcome of final-status negotiations" with the Palestinians.

Mr. Sharon, for his part, prefers to emphasize the first part and play down the second. And no matter how annoyed Washington may be, the Americans do not want Mr. Sharon's government to fall and his Gaza plan to fail.

Mr. Sharon has promised Mr. Bush, in the peace plan called the road map, to dismantle illegal outposts erected by settlers after March 2001 and to freeze settlement construction and expansion. But the Israelis also say they have tacit understandings with Mr. Bush that a settlement freeze would allow for "natural growth" of the existing population and new building within the existing boundaries of settlements.

American officials do not officially confirm such understandings, but even if they exist, the proposed new housing in Maale Adumim, the largest settlement in the West Bank, with about 30,000 people, would not represent merely "natural growth." The Israeli announcement "embarrassed the Americans," an Israeli official conceded, one reason why Ms. Rice reacted so strongly.

Washington is also eager to support the new Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, whose own position is undermined by the Israeli announcement. "What was acceptable to the Americans under Yasir Arafat is not acceptable today," the official said.

In a letter last April 14, Mr. Bush acknowledged that a final peace deal with the Palestinians would not be made on the basis of Israel's 1967 boundaries, but would reflect the "new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers."

For Israel, one key reality is Maale Adumim, which looks like a Jerusalem suburb and which no Israeli government is likely to be willing to negotiate away. But Washington has never been willing to identify what it means by "demographic realities," let alone give its approval to specific settlements.

Speaking for the European Union, its foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said Friday that the Israeli plan to expand Maale Adumim "runs counter to the commitment by parties involved to abstain from any unilateral action that could affect a final solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator, said: "The United States can't decide on behalf of the Palestinians and can't decide final-status negotiation issues by itself. We urge the United States to have Israel stop settlement activity."

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