Backers of Jewish Settlements Step Up Pressure on Netanyahu Over Demolition Plan

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 28, 2009

JERUSALEM, May 27 -- Supporters of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank are increasing the pressure on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as he steers between a government coalition that supports continued building in the area and President Obama's demand that it stop.

A group of rabbis who support expanding settlements gathered Wednesday in an outpost near Ramallah and issued a statement asking the government "not to destroy settlements while maltreating pioneers." The group, calling itself Rabbis of the Torah and the Land, also declared that Jewish law forbade police and troops from obeying orders to remove settlements.

Harel Cohen, the secretary of the organization, said the meeting was called to debate whether Netanyahu's plan to dismantle about two dozen settlement outposts means that he "has changed his opinions or whether he is just misleading the Americans."

Obama has asked for a complete freeze on construction in more than 100 Jewish settlements housing a total of about 290,000 people on land occupied by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In response, the Netanyahu administration has said it would pull down 26 small, unauthorized settlement outposts but would not halt construction in other West Bank communities.

Cohen said the loss of the outposts would be a blow to the settler movement, which maintains that the occupied land belongs to Israel and should not be used to form a Palestinian state.

"They want to throw 2,000 Jews into the street," Cohen said, referring to the small clusters of mobile homes marked for evacuation. "You have to fight for the outposts in order to distance the battles from the larger settlements."

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton firmly rejected any half steps on settlements. "The president was very clear when Prime Minister Netanyahu was here," she told reporters Wednesday. "He wants to see a stop to settlements -- not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions."

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, en route to Washington for a meeting Thursday with Obama, also called for a full settlement freeze. Palestinians say the settlements will make it harder to draw a final border.

Speaking to Israel's parliament, Netanyahu said he hoped Arab states would begin normalizing ties with Israel as part of Obama's regional peace effort. Netanyahu promised to move ahead with measures to improve the Palestinian economy, which he has said should be a focus of Israel's efforts.

Netanyahu was elected this year on a platform of anti-terrorism and opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state. In the parliament Tuesday, members of his Likud party organized a conference to discuss alternatives to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Yaalon said Israelis should "not apply terms like 'solution' in the foreseeable future" but rather should speak of "crisis management" or "coping in the long term."

Tzipi Hotovely, a Likud lawmaker who organized the session, said its purpose was not to threaten Netanyahu with a party rebellion but to "empower" him in his negotiations with the United States.

"We are not saying to the Americans that you are wrong" about settlements, Hotovely said. "We are saying to the prime minister: 'You have a strong coalition that will stand behind you as long as you keep strength in the ideology.' "

As the political debate intensified, Israeli officials continued what has become a sort of cat-and-mouse game with settlers in small tent outposts. Two were taken down late Tuesday, and members of both said they intended to reestablish them and bring in more people, local media reported.

Dror Etkes, coordinator of settlement issues for the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, said scuffles over the outposts deflect attention from larger issues, including hundreds of unenforced demolition orders against individual settler properties and long delays at the Defense Ministry in clearing unauthorized outposts.

"It is a well-directed drama," Etkes said. "It is a game between the Israeli administration and the U.S. administration."

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