Abbas pleased with US slapdown

Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas expressed satisfaction on Wednesday after United States President George Bush warned Israel against expanding any of its settlements in the occupied territories.

“President Abu Mazen [Abbas] welcomes the declarations by President Bush in which he confirmed the United States’ commitment to the road map and appealed to Israel to totally halt its settlement activity in the West Bank,” the Palestinian Authority said in a statement.

Abbas called on Israel “to take rapid measures for the implementation of the roadmap and to stop totally its construction of the wall and settlements on the ground in order to create the necessary conditions to relaunch the peace process”.

In an unusually sharp slapdown for Washington’s chief Middle East ally, Bush warned Israel on Tuesday that there could be “no expansion” of settlements in Palestinian territories under the US-backed road map to Middle East peace.

The president was reacting to an Israeli plan to expand a major West Bank settlement outside Jerusalem, Maale Adumim.

Israeli cabinet minister Matan Vilnai said the project for 3 500 housing units at Maale Adumim had been around for years and its approval by Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz last month should not be regarded as news.

Serious differences

A senior Israeli Cabinet minister acknowledged on Wednesday that there are serious differences between Israel and the US over Jewish settlement expansion.

Housing Minister Tsipi Livni spoke a day after US President George W. Bush affirmed his support for the “road map” peace plan, which calls for a settlement construction freeze. The issue was raised after Israeli officials last month confirmed plans to build 3 650 homes in the largest West Bank settlement, Maaleh Adumim.

Livni told Israel Army Radio that there is agreement between Israel and the United States on continued construction within the built-up areas of the settlements.

“It seems that the debate is more over whether Israel can expand the perimeters of these communities, and certainly from an American viewpoint, as well, Israel can build within them,” she said.
“Not that this makes it easy for us; let there be no misunderstanding. There apparently will be disputes with the Americans over this.”

The planned Maaleh Adumim expansion is especially contentious because it would link the settlement to east Jerusalem, separating Arab neighbourhoods of the city from the rest of the West Bank. The Palestinians hope to make east Jerusalem the capital of their future state.

A year ago, after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unveiled a plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, Bush issued a letter to Israel stating his support for Israel’s retention of major Israeli population centres in the West Bank under a final peace deal with the Palestinians.

But the US has steadily opposed expansion of settlements. “Our position is very clear that the ‘road map’ is important and the ‘road map’ calls for no expansion of the settlements,” Bush said ahead of Sharon’s visit at his Texas ranch next week.

Last month, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Israel’s plan to expand Maaleh Adumim was “at odds with American policy” and could threaten peace with the Palestinians.

An Israeli defence official recently acknowledged that the expansion plan was liable to be bogged down for years by legal challenges. He also said, without elaborating, that six months ago, the US halted joint work with Israel on demarcation of existing settlements’ lines.

Livni said she doesn’t expect sparks at the Bush-Sharon meeting over Maaleh Adumim because the US president understands the significance of the Gaza pullout.

The Gaza plan has touched off fierce opposition within Israel, but having failed to block it through legislation, some settlers are now worrying that if they don’t negotiate with the government now, they will have little say in their fate.

A meeting between settlers and Sharon on Tuesday—the first in months—would relocate many of the settlers in Israeli communities along the Mediterranean coast, about 19 kilometres north of the Gaza Strip.

The plan would require overhauling the government’s earlier compensation program, which allocated a billion shekels (about R1,4-billion) to be divided among settlers, a spokesperson for the government’s withdrawal agency said. Some government officials have said the overall cost of the pullout could reach $1-billion (about R6,2-billion).

The new plan faces several obstacles, including the potential opposition of residents near the planned communities and protests by environmentalists concerned that the government could be destroying natural sand dunes and desert wilderness.

Vice-Premier Shimon Peres said Israel would ask the United States for money to help with the withdrawal. Rice said Tuesday that she was not ready to commit the US to foot part of the bill.

Peres refused to say how much money Israel is seeking from the US, but an official close to the Bush administration said there are expectations in Washington that Israel would request $500-million (R3,050-billion).—Sapa-AP

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