August 27, 2008

Rice Criticizes Israel’s Building in West Bank

By Ethan Bronner

Peace Now, the Israeli advocacy group, said in a report issued Tuesday that in the past year Israel had nearly doubled its settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, in violation of its obligations under a U.S.-backed peace plan.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in Jerusalem on a short visit to help Israeli and Palestinian leaders in their negotiations, said, when asked about the report, that she had told Israeli officials that such building did not advance the cause of peace.

"What we need now are steps that enhance confidence between the parties, and anything that undermines confidence between the parties ought to be avoided," she said with the Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, beside her.

For her part, Livni said that settlement building should not influence the negotiations, because the goal should be "not to let any kind of noises that relate to the situation on the ground these days enter the negotiation room."

Earlier, Rice had made clear that neither Israelis nor Palestinians had fully lived up to their obligations. Israel is supposed to end all settlement building and remove illegal settlement outposts, while the Palestinians are supposed to dismantle terrorist infrastructures.

Negotiators had been hoping for a full two-state peace framework between the Palestinian Authority and Israel to be completed by the end of the Bush administration. Lately, though, they have been cautioning that such an aim may be out of reach, although the talks, they say, are making progress.

Most say they prefer to continue the process rather than try to put together a partial document. But Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who will soon be stepping down, seems eager for some agreement before his term ends.

Standing with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, in Ramallah after their meeting, Rice said that "god willing," and with the hard work of the negotiators, the two-state goal could still be attained before year's end.

Abbas seemed already to be looking beyond the Bush administration, however, and expressed hope that the next U.S. administration would "continue what we have begun, and what we have reached." Abbas also denounced the increased settlement building.

The Peace Now report on settlements, based on aerial photographs, visits and government data, says that more than 1,000 new buildings are going up in the West Bank, including 2,600 housing units. It says that for the first five months of 2008, construction in the settlements was 1.8 times greater than in the same period of 2007.

Peace Now opposes Israel building on land captured in the 1967 war, such as the West Bank, and favors facilitating the creation of a Palestinian state there. The organization is considered a reliable source of settlement information.

According to its report, more than half of the building is going on beyond the separation barrier that Israel has built in recent years on the border of and inside the West Bank. This is significant, if true, because Israeli leaders have argued that ultimately a deal with the Palestinians would have to allow Israel to hold onto several settlement blocs and neighborhoods in East Jerusalem in exchange for land swaps. They say new construction in East Jerusalem and close-in settlements on the Israeli side of the barrier should not be cause for concern.

The Peace Now report shows that indeed the building in East Jerusalem is intensive, with the number of tenders for houses there up from 46 in 2007 to 1,761 this year - 38 times as many.

A spokesman for Israel's housing ministry, Eran Sidis, said he could not check on all the data in the Peace Now report but defended building in areas that Israel wants to keep, saying: "There's nothing to prevent strengthening settlement blocs that in the end of day, in a peace agreement, will clearly be in Israel's hands."

U.S. and Palestinian officials reject the idea that such construction is harmless. In addition, the Peace Now report shows that beyond the barrier, construction also continues apace. In the illegal outposts, 125 new structures were added, including 30 permanent houses.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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