By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 29, 2009
President Obama yesterday continued to press his administration's tough stance on Jewish settlements in the West Bank, telling reporters after a meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas that Israel must halt all settlement activity to build momentum for peace.
Obama, who met last week with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, said, "In my conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I was very clear about the need to stop settlements, to make sure that we are stopping the building of outposts . . . to alleviate some of the pressures that the Palestinian people are under in terms of travel and commerce."
Obama noted that Palestinians also must improve security as part of their commitments under the 2003 "road map" for peace, though he added that the Palestinian Authority had made "great progress" with the assistance of a U.S. general.
The road-map plan commits Israel to dismantling settler outposts and freezing "all settlement activity," including building to accommodate what is known as "natural growth." But the near-daily barrage of U.S. demands that Israel halt settlement growth has surprised Israeli officials, who argue that they greatly restrained growth under an unwritten 2005 agreement with the Bush administration. Under that deal, Israel was to stop providing incentives for settlers to move to the West Bank and was to build only in areas it expected to keep in future peace agreements.
But the continued growth even in those settlements -- and an unwillingness by various Israeli governments to dismantle outposts -- has left the Arab world doubtful that Israel would agree to a peace deal. The Obama administration appears to have calculated that pressing Israel on settlements will help demonstrate to the Arab nations that the United States is serious about pursuing peace, even at the risk of appearing to undermine Netanyahu's nascent government.
"Time is of the essence," Obama said. "We can't continue with the drift, with the increased fear and resentments on both sides, of the sense of hopelessness around the situation that we've seen for many years now. We need to get this thing back on track."
Netanyahu's coalition of mostly right-wing parties has erupted in anger at the demand to halt settlements. Israeli media have reported that he is trying to craft a compromise in which he would move forcefully against illegal outposts, telling members of parliament that it was the only way to win American help on countering Iran's nuclear program.
Netanyahu has been a longtime skeptic of proposals to create a Palestinian state, and he refused to commit to the concept during his U.S. visit.
By contrast, his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, pressed hard to strike a deal with Abbas. In November, Olmert offered to withdraw from 90 percent of the West Bank, while swapping 6.5 percent of the West Bank for 5.8 percent of Israeli territory and establishing a corridor linking the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, according to an account recently given by senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat to Agence France-Presse. Holy places in Jerusalem would have shared sovereignty under that plan.
Abbas did not agree to the deal because Olmert did not answer questions about water issues and the treatment of refugees, Erekat said.
Earlier yesterday, Abed al-Majid Dudin, a longtime Hamas leader accused of plotting fatal attacks against Israel, was killed during an exchange of gunfire after Israeli forces surrounded his West Bank home, an Israeli military official said.
A spokesman for Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by the United States and Israel, confirmed that Dudin was a commander in its armed wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades. Dudin's death "inflames the situation all over again," the Hamas official said, after months of relative quiet in the wake of Israel's military operation in Gaza in the winter.
Correspondent Howard Schneider in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.