JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to approve the construction of hundreds of new homes in the occupied West Bank before he considers a freeze on building new Jewish settlements. The homes would be in addition to 2,500 houses that already are under construction in the West Bank.
The White House, which has called on Israel to halt all settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Israel seized from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War, swiftly responded Friday with an unusually blunt statement. "We regret the reports of Israel's plans to approve additional settlement construction," President Barack Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said in a statement.
"As the president has said before, the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop. We are working to create a climate in which negotiations can take place, and such actions make it harder to create such a climate," the statement said.
Obama reportedly had been hoping to announce a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks when he travels to the United Nations later this month. The Israeli move appears to undercut that goal, although Netanyahu and his aides have been discussing curbs on future settlement activity with Obama's special envoy, former Maine Sen. George Mitchell.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has demanded that Israel halt all settlement construction as a precondition to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh condemned the announcement, calling it "part of a policy of maneuvering and waiting that has been going on for 15 years, and it is unacceptable."
Rudeineh told McClatchy that he expects Israel to implement a complete settlement freeze, saying: "There should be a total freeze according to what Obama said."
An aide to Netanyahu, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly, said the Israeli leader would consider a settlement freeze, but he said that Netanyahu had made it clear that East Jerusalem was part of Israel and that he wouldn't limit construction in the city.
Mitchell has been trying to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, including discussions with Israel of a settlement freeze.
While there's been little official word about these negotiations, they've focused on issues such as the length of a settlement freeze and whether it includes "settlement blocs," areas inhabited by large numbers of settlers.
Officials in the previous Israeli government said the George W. Bush administration had agreed to continued construction in these blocs. Israel also has demanded that existing settlements be allowed to expand to account for natural population growth.
According to the aide to Netanyahu, the negotiations have progressed. "We're getting close," he said. He also said that Netanyahu had mentioned the need to allow normal life in the settlements to continue, which has been interpreted as code for continuing construction to accommodate what Israel calls "natural" population growth.
The negotiations include Obama's call for Arab countries to make goodwill gestures to Israel, such as granting Israeli airlines permission to fly over Arab nations. Qatar and Oman in the Persian Gulf reportedly have agreed to formal ties with Israel if it implements a settlement freeze.
According to the Netanyahu aide, the steps the Arab world is willing to take would affect Israel's actions in the West Bank. "There is no question that the more the Arab world shows that it is willing to take steps, the more flexibility Israel would be able to show on these issues," he said.
According to another senior Israeli official, Netanyahu's move is a message to Arab countries that Israel expects reciprocation for a settlement freeze: "My assumption is that it is a tactical move in the indirect negotiations with Arab governments, saying, 'I'm going to freeze, but if we don't get full satisfaction we have plans that are already approved.' "
The same official, who also asked not to be identified because of a lack of authority to speak publicly, noted that this move also could be aimed at internal Israeli opposition to a freeze, saying, "It can also be used to shut down home opposition."
(Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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