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Barak's Ministry Outpaces Netanyahu's on Settlement Growth

By Deborah Sontag

NY Times 09/28/1999 / AFP 09/26/1999

JERUSALEM -- In its first three months, Prime Minister Ehud Barak's government has authorized new construction in the West Bank's Jewish settlements at a pace exceeding that of the right-wing administration of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Palestinians had hoped that Barak would curtail Netanyahu's expansion plans for the Jewish settlements to create a better climate for peacemaking.

But Barak's Housing Ministry, which is controlled by the settlers' political party, has proceeded with housing projects begun under Netanyahu.

Housing Ministry officials confirmed Monday that since July the new government has sought bids for some 2,600 new housing units in the settlements. Under the previous government, the Israelis authorized construction of about 3,000 new units a year, officials said.

Most of the development is slated for the large urban settlements close to Jerusalem, although some will take place in isolated settlements deep inside the West Bank.

The government's housing plans were revealed on Sunday by Peace Now, an Israeli group that monitors and opposes settlement activity.

On Sunday, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, condemned Israel's construction plans as "destructive to peace." The Palestinians see any settlement expansion as a provocative act whereby the Israelis seize disputed land whose fate is supposed to be decided at the negotiating table.

Also on Sunday, Barak himself ordered a review of the Housing Ministry's plans and procedures.

It was unclear Monday exactly what happened within the Barak government.

Questions were raised about whether the Housing Ministry, which is controlled by the setters' National Religious Party, had authorized the building starts with the prime minister's tacit consent or without his direct knowledge.

An official in the prime minister's office implied Monday night that Barak had been unaware of the construction plan. "You don't check every activity of every minister of every office," the official said.

But it seemed unlikely that National Religious Party leaders would act without at least the presumption that Barak backed them. And Palestinian officials considered the distinction meaningless.

"At any rate, he is the prime minister of Israel and the one responsible," said Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official. "And if he doesn't revoke this decision immediately, he makes future final status negotiations meaningless."

Yitzhak Levy, the housing minister and National Religious Party leader, made it clear that he saw the construction as directly related to the final status peace talks that recently began. During those negotiations, the Israelis and the Palestinians will seek agreement on such deeply emotional issues as the fate of Jerusalem and of the West Bank settlements.

Settlements near Jerusalem, Levy said, "certainly have to undergo a beefing-up process if the government intends to safeguard Jerusalem in the negotiations."

While settlement activity had increased in the final months of Netanyahu's administration, the Palestinians had hoped that Barak would reverse the trend.

Barak himself, however, has pledged only that no new settlements will be built. His government's written guidelines address the issue of expanding existing settlements obliquely: "The government will offer a response to the ongoing development needs of existing settlement communities," the guidelines say.

The new development is in line with a master plan established by the Netanyahu government. New construction is to be concentrated in four settlements ringing Jerusalem, all of which are likely candidates for annexation to Israel during a final peace agreement: Maale Adumim, Givat Zeev, Har Adar, and Betar Ilit.

The remaining new units would be scattered through outlying settlements, for instance near Hebron to the south and the Palestinian town of Qalqilya to the north.

A Housing Ministry spokesman, Moshe Eilat, said that in past years about 3,000 new units were built annually. But he said that no decision had been made "to build more than last year." He said that it was coincidental that the activity was occurring all at once, and that it was related to what the Israelis call the "natural growth" of the existing settlements.

But Peace Now volunteers said that construction work had not been bottled up or frozen. And they said that the construction plans far exceed the natural growth rate of about 2 percent a year. In Betar Ilit, for instance, an ultra-Orthodox settlement, some 1,100 building starts were just authorized in a community that now has 2,000 units.

A Cabinet committee on settlements is expected to examine the development plans and whether the expansion violates the coalition government's position on settlements. The committee, which is supposed to meet for the first time in October, is also scheduled to consider the fate of some 37 illegal outposts set up by settlers during the Netanyahu days.

Barak, who intentionally included the small settlers' party in his coalition government, is seeking a broad consensus to back his peacemaking plans. He does not want to antagonize the settlers, whose fate depends on the process.

And, if Barak indeed signed off on the expansion plans, it is possible that he believes he can take a gamble with this move. In a recent interview with the Jerusalem Post, the Israeli prime minister said that he is certain Arafat knows that he will not get back the entire West Bank. The settlements slated to be enlarged are those least likely to be dismantled.

At the same time, Barak may be trying to show some support for the settlers to keep his coalition government behind him on the peace effort.

"Let's hope he's not cutting off his nose to spite his face," said Galia Golan, a political scientist at Hebrew University and a leader of the Peace Now movement. "Because by expanding the settlements he is jeopardizing the peace process itself."

Erekat, the Palestinian official, pointed out that this news comes three weeks after Barak signed the latest interim peace agreement at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt. He noted that Netanyahu initiated the Har Homa building project on disputed land outside Jerusalem three weeks after he signed the Hebron Protocol, a previous interim agreement. The Har Homa project brought international condemnation and paralyzed the peace negotiations for 18 months.

In a lead editorial, the Haaretz newspaper on Monday called on Barak to make clear what it described as his "ambiguous" and "contradictory" position toward settlements, saying that the construction plans do not square with his desire to make and abide by peace agreements.

"It is quite clear that this kind of building momentum in the settlements contradicts international commitments that the government of Israel assumed," the editorial said. "Barak, who is seeking the confidence of the world's leaders, of his Arab neighbors and of the public that brought him to power, has the obligation to resolve this contradiction."


Jewish settlement expansion continues apace under Barak

JERUSALEM, Sept 26 (AFP) - Israel is pressing ahead with the expansion of Jewish settlements despite repeated Palestinian protests that it is one of the biggest barriers to Prime Minister Ehud Barak's pledge to advance peace, new figures revealed on Sunday.

Israel has invited tenders for no less than 2,600 settlement expansion projects in the occupied territories since Barak took office in July on a pledge to advance peace with the Palestinians, public radio reported.

At least a thousand of the tenders invited by the housing ministry concern West Bank settlements close to Jerusalem -- Maale Adumim, Givat Zeev and Betar Illith, the radio said.

The other expansion projects concern the settlements of Kiryat Arba and Otniel close to the southern West Bank town of Hebron, and of Qarne Shomron and Ariel in the northern West Bank between Nablus and Ramallah.

A further seven tenders have been invited since July for infrastructure projects in West Bank settlements, the radio said.

The figures provoked an angry reaction from Israeli peace activists. "Housing Minister Yitzhak Levy is continuing the policies of the former right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu," the Peace Now group charged.

But a ministry spokesman vigorously defended the policies of the hardline Levy, whose National Religious Party is a strong supporter of the 160,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"(Settlement) construction within Eretz Israel (Biblical Greater Israel) will continue in accordance with the government's programme everywhere where there is a demand for housing," the spokesman said.

Barak's government has pledged not to build new Jewish settlements in the occupied territories but has said it will continue to meet housing needs in existing settlements.

Barak has also vowed that there will be no return to the borders that existed before Israel's 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and that large blocs of Jewish settlement there will remain under Israeli sovereignty in any final settlement with the Palestinians.

So-called final status talks on the most vexed issues outstanding between Israel and the Palestinians, including Jewish settlements, were launched two weeks ago.

The Palestinians insist that continued settlement expansion preempts those talks and is a serious impediment to peace.

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