Israeli prime minister says "it wouldn't be fair to ban construction to meet the needs of natural growth or for there to be an outright construction ban" but Barack Obama says unequivocally "settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward." The US administration's effort is combined with a more critical stance inside the US congress, but it has been complicated by an unwritten agreement on the issue between Israel and the United States reached during the Bush administration.
US presses Israel to halt settlement growth entirely
After his recent meeting with the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the US president Barack Obama said unequivocally: "Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward." Likewise, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, speaking on Al Jazeera this week said: "We want to see a stop to settlement construction, additions, natural growth - any kind of settlement activity." Whereas the previous administration in Washington saw settlement growth as "unhelpful," the new administration is adopting a tougher position. The Washington Post reported: "The Obama administration is pressing the Israeli government to halt the expansion of Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas, US and Israeli officials said, seeking a visible symbol of progress on peace that might inspire Arab states to consider normalising relations with Jerusalem. The administration's effort is being accompanied by greater willingness by US lawmakers to complain publicly about settlements, but it has been complicated by an unwritten agreement on the issue between Israel and the United States reached during the Bush administration... "Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said there are no plans for a full settlement freeze. 'The issue of settlements is a final status issue, and until there are final status arrangements, it would not be fair to kill normal life inside existing communities,' he said. "Regev said the Israeli government is relying on 'understandings' between former president George W Bush and former prime minister Ariel Sharon that some of the larger settlements in the occupied West Bank would ultimately become part of Israel, codified in a letter that Bush gave to Sharon in 2004. In an interview with The Washington Post last year, Sharon aide Dov Weissglas said that in 2005, when Sharon was poised to remove settlers from Gaza, the Bush administration arrived at a secret agreement - not disclosed to the Palestinians - that Israel could add homes in settlements it expected to keep, as long as the construction was dictated by market demand, not subsidies. "Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser who negotiated the arrangement with Weissglas, confirmed the deal in an interview last week. 'At the time of the Gaza withdrawal, there were lengthy discussions about how settlement activity might be constrained, and in fact it was constrained in the later part of the Sharon years and the Olmert years in accordance with the ideas that were discussed,' he said. 'There was something of an understanding realised on these questions, but it was never a written agreement.' "Regev said Israeli and US negotiators are discussing the degree to which the terms of the 2004 letter will apply under the new administration, but US officials indicated that Obama wants to move beyond the 2004 letter and hold Israel to its commitments under the road map. 'The bottom line is we expect all the parties in the region to honour their commitments, and for the Israelis, that means a stop to settlements, as the president said,' a senior administration official said." The hardened stance in Washington was further reinforced for the Israelis during meetings on Capitol Hill. Yediot Acharonoth reported: "The leaders of the two houses of congress surprised [Mr Netanyahu]... with harsh and unequivocal statements on the continuation of settlement activity in the West Bank. Jewish members of congress were the ones who led the attack on the policy of the Netanyahu government and its forerunners. "Netanyahu devoted the last day of his visit to Washington mainly to separate meetings with senior Senators and members of the House of Representatives. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said: The United States expects to receive from Israel a commitment to solve the problem of settlements, to stop construction in existing settlements, to remove unauthorized settlement outposts and to stop saying that construction is for purposes of natural growth. "Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, a veteran Jewish legislator and chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, said to Netanyahu: The issue of settlements is a matter of principle for the administration and Congress. It must be dealt with in conjunction with addressing the Iranian threat. Other members of Congress said similar things to Netanyahu. No one took a favourable line towards Israel on this matter, with the exception of Eric Cantor, a Jewish Republican Congressman from Florida. "A senior Israeli official who was present at the meetings defined them as 'a fight' and 'mutual arm-wrestling,' with Netanyahu trying to put an emphasis on the Iranian issue, and the members of Congress insisting on returning to the issue of the settlements. The senior official emphasised that there was full coordination between President Obama and the members of the Democratic majority in congress. Netanyahu discovered yesterday how much congress had changed, the senior official said. In 1996, Netanyahu recruited the Republican majority that existed in congress against Clinton, the Democratic president. Today, this is impossible. "National Security Adviser James Jones presented Netanyahu with a series of demands on the issue of settlements and relief measures for Palestinian residents and the Palestinian Authority. The administration is also demanding to ease the transfer of goods to Gaza." AFP said Mr Obama: "continues to break new ground in his quest for Arab-Israeli peace as he finishes up his meetings with key players before a landmark speech in Cairo, analysts say. "After talks here earlier this month with Israel's premier Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan's King Abdullah II, Obama is to meet this week with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas. "Analysts see the prospect of concrete steps to revive peace talks from all sides in the run up to the June 4 speech in Cairo, which will focus on reviving ties with Arabs and Muslims but likely also to touch on peace with Israel. "Shibley Telhami said Obama is treating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with both a sense of urgency and even-handedness rarely adopted by his predecessors. "Telhami remarked that during the president's White House talks with the hardline Netanyahu last Monday, Obama was 'rather blunt and straightforward' about the need to halt Israeli settlements in the West Bank. "I thought that he highlighted the issue of settlements in ways we haven't seen in a long time," the University of Maryland professor told AFP." Meanwhile, as the US adopts an increasingly uncompromising approach towards the issue of settlement expansion, Israeli leaders are so far not yielding to pressure. "Ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman ruled out a return to Israel's pre-1967 war borders on Sunday, as its largely right-wing cabinet rebuffed calls to remove Jewish settlements built on Palestinian land," AFP reported. " 'A return to the borders of '67 today, as we are being pressured to do, would not end the conflict, would not guarantee peace or security,' Lieberman told reporters ahead of the government meeting. " 'It would simply move the conflict to within the '67 borders,' he said, referring to Israel, as the cabinet met for the first time since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's talks with US President Barack Obama in Washington. "Israel seized the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and east Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War and continues to occupy the territories, except for Gaza, that today are home to about half a million Jewish settlers." In the same cabinet meeting, Mr Netanyahu said: "We do not intend to build any new settlements, but it wouldn't be fair to ban construction to meet the needs of natural growth or for there to be an outright construction ban." Ynet noted: "Much of Sunday's cabinet meeting focused on the issue of evacuating illegal outposts, as many of the ministers were embittered by Defense Minister Ehud Barak's recent comments about the need to evacuate outposts, 'Either through dialogue or by force.' "Settler leaders vowed Sunday to continue building new outposts: If the government continues to take aggressive, one-sided steps, it will also be responsible for the dire consequences,' head of the Yesha Council, Danny Dayan said."