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Israel plans cash for West Bank settlers

Benjamin Netanyahu is set to officially propose a plan that may grant tens of thousands of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank additional state funding.

TEL AVIV // Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, is set to officially propose a plan today that may grant tens of thousands of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank additional state funding in a bid to allay their opposition to the recently-announced partial construction suspension. The plan, which is expected to be submitted for debate and possibly a vote during Mr Netanyahu's weekly cabinet meeting, aims to place dozens of Jewish settlements, including isolated communities deep in the West Bank, in a government programme that grants monetary incentives for civilians and businesses.

News of the plan has angered Palestinians and dovish Israeli legislators, who accused the premier of caving in to settler pressure and claimed the move contradicted the US-backed partial freeze on Jewish building in occupied Palestinian territory by improving life for settlers in other spheres. Cabinet ministers from the Labor party, the only centrist member of Mr Netanyahu's predominantly pro-settler, right-wing coalition, warned they may vote against the plan because it endangers the peace process by benefiting many communities that are not part of the major settlement blocs Israel plans to keep under any peace deal with the Palestinians.

Israeli media also reported that the move would violate a pledge to the US made by Ariel Sharon, a predecessor of Mr Netanyahu, on the issue of settlements. In May 2003, Mr Sharon agreed with the administration of George W Bush, the previous US president, that the Israeli government would not make use of state funds to upgrade living conditions in the Jewish settlements, according to Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper.

The plan is the second significant step by the primarily pro-settler government of Mr Netanyahu to ease the increasingly strident confrontations with settlers following its decision last month not to grant new building permits for construction in West Bank settlements for the next 10 months. Last week, the Israeli parliament gave preliminary approval to a bill backed by members of Mr Netanyahu's cabinet that would require a national referendum on any peace deal that gives up control of East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights.

The measure, which still needs to pass two more parliamentary votes before becoming law, could limit the ability of any future Israeli government to cede any annexed land in a peace accord with either the Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, or with Syria, which demands the Golan Heights. The plan that Mr Netanyahu is submitting to his cabinet today would include more than 100,000 settlers in a government programme of national priority zones. The scheme gives preferential treatment to a total of about two million Israelis considered by the government as distressed populations because of their distance from central Israel, security concerns, poverty or education gaps. The programme provides such communities more funds and benefits for transportation, education, employment and health care.

Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement group, condemned the initiative and estimated last week about 75 per cent of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, housing 143,000 Israelis, stand to be included in the programme. It also suggested that the settlements should not be entitled to additional benefits because in actuality they have higher income and education levels, and a lower jobless rate, than the average of all communities in Israel.

According to the group, the benefits given to the preferred areas chosen to take part in the programme include tax breaks for businesses, funds for technological incubators, financial aid for agriculture as well as housing loans. Mr Netanyahu's plan has raised concern abroad. On Friday, Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, whose country holds the rotating European Union presidency, said he has asked for a discussion on the issue among the participants of the so-called Middle East diplomatic Quartet, which comprises the EU, Russia, the US and the UN.

Israeli media reported that Mr Netanyahu has also attempted to stem any possible criticism from Washington by assuring the US that the incentives will have nothing to do with housing or construction and that they were not a bid to roll back the building suspension. foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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