September 2, 2005

Israel freezes plan to link Jerusalem, big settlement

By Mark Heinrich

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel has frozen plans to build
1,000 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank near
Jerusalem, a minister said on Friday, heeding U.S. opposition
to a move Palestinians fear would deny them a viable state.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who removed settlers from Gaza
last month, has long wanted to build a link between Jerusalem
and Israel's biggest settlement Maale Adumim despite U.S.
concern this could cripple any future Middle East peace push.

But Israeli officials recently signaled that the so-called
"E1" plan was on hold and his deputy publicly confirmed it.

"The state of Israel has committed itself to freeze the
building. As such we would be acting in an irresponsible manner
if we would do otherwise," Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told
the Jerusalem Post in an interview.

He made clear the disputed "E1" undertaking, which could
largely cut the West Bank in two and seal it off from Arab East
Jerusalem, had been suspended under U.S. pressure.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem for a future capital.

But Olmert said Israel would still try to salvage the E1
project in the end, despite a U.S.-devised peace plan requiring
Israel to halt settlement growth that might pre-empt the
emergence of a geographically contiguous Palestinian state.

"It is clear we will not do anything behind the Americans'
backs ... (But) when the conditions are ripe, we will raise the
issue with the Americans again," he told the newspaper.

"It is absolutely clear that at a certain point in the
future Israel will create continuity between Jerusalem and
Maale Adumim, and so there is not even an argument that in the
end we will have to build the project."

Israel captured holy Jerusalem's eastern sector, along with
the West Bank and Gaza, in a 1967 war. The E1 project in what
is now empty desert would cement Israel's claim to Jerusalem as
its indivisible capital, not recognized internationally.


Palestinian Planning Minister Ghassan al-Khatib, asked
about Olmert's remarks, said the "promise to freeze
construction at Maale Adumim is a positive step if Israel
sticks to it."

"Israel now stands at a crossroads: either build on the
momentum created by the Gaza disengagement and kickstart road
map talks, or expand West Bank colonization to 'compensate'
Gaza settlers. The latter path will push the sides back into
the cycle of violence and confrontation," Khatib told Reuters.

Israel is finalizing plans to build a police station on the
sensitive E1 tract, a step likely to anger Palestinians.

Sharon scrapped all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of 120
in the West Bank under his plan to defuse conflict with
Palestinians seeking a state spanning the two territories.

But he says Israel will never cede much larger West Bank
settlement blocs, such as Maale Adumim, with more than 20 times
the number of Jews there were in tiny coastal Gaza.

Palestinians fear Sharon's logic for "disengagement" was to
divert foreign scrutiny from West Bank settlements to
development efforts in Gaza.

The United States lauded Sharon's unilateral
"disengagement" as a potential springboard, along with a
six-month-old ceasefire, to a "road map" process toward a
Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. But talks remain
beyond the horizon.

Israel rules them out before the Palestinian Authority
disarms militants. Palestinian leaders balk at such a step
while settlers keep flowing into the West Bank, with the number
of arrivals this year outstripping those who left Gaza last

Pre-election power struggles on both sides also militate
against viable peacemaking anytime soon.

Sharon is talking tough on settlement blocs to counter a
bid to topple him by rightist hardliners in his own party over
a pullout. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas faces a tough
challenge from Hamas militants in a January parliamentary
election. He wants to co-opt rather than try to crush Hamas.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi in West Bank)