By Glenn Kessler and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 5, 2009
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu plans to approve hundreds of new housing units in settlements in Palestinian areas, senior Israeli officials said Friday -- a move that earned a swift rebuke from the White House but that paradoxically may pave the way for an accord to freeze further settlement expansion.
Under pressure from Washington, Netanyahu has been negotiating a deal with the Obama administration to stop settlement expansion for six to nine months in order to lay the groundwork for new peace talks. But he must also contend with a right-leaning coalition in Israel skeptical of a settlement freeze. Some analysts view the leak of the settlement plans as an indication that Netanyahu is nearing an agreement with President Obama's special envoy for Middle East peace, former senator George J. Mitchell.
"The government had to find a way to on the one hand present the Americans with a commitment to nonconstruction but on the other hand present the settlers with something that will look like an expansion. The magic pill is planning," said Michael Sfard, a lawyer with the anti-settlement group Yesh Din. "It is not that big a deal to not build for six or nine months, but planning takes a long time. That's the bottleneck."
As part of the peculiar stagecraft that often characterizes Middle East diplomacy, the White House nevertheless quickly condemned the Israeli leader's plans, not even waiting for an official announcement. The plans had been disclosed to Mitchell during a meeting with Israeli envoys this week, and the White House apparently wanted to react before inevitable cries of disappointment from the Palestinians and the Arab world.
Mitchell separately has been negotiating individual deals with some Arab states to take symbolic steps toward normalization of relations with Israel, such as reestablishing low-level ties and allowing overflight rights for Israeli airlines. The announcement of those agreements is linked to a settlement freeze that the Arab world deems credible.
The administration initially demanded a full halt, but now it appears to be gambling that a temporary one will provide enough momentum for peace negotiations that Netanyahu eventually would extend the construction freeze rather than kill promising talks.
Mitchell and his team have been pressing for the deals to be wrapped up in time to schedule an announcement at the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly this month that Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will be resumed. Palestinian officials have said that they will refuse to restart talks unless settlement activity is halted.
Initially, at least, Netanyahu's balancing act angered Palestinian officials. "We look at this as serious erosion of America's effort to bring the parties to the table, and it is a challenge to the international community," said Mohammed Shtayyeh, minister of public works for the Palestinian Authority.
In the White House statement, press secretary Robert Gibbs expressed "regret" at media reports of the Israeli plans, adding: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop."
The Israeli government has told U.S. officials that even under a freeze it probably will be unable to halt construction of 2,500 units in 700 buildings; the houses under the new plans would be in addition to that activity.
"We are working to create a climate in which negotiations can take place, and such actions make it harder to create such a climate," the White House statement said. "We do appreciate Israel's stated intent to place limits on settlement activity and will continue to discuss this with the Israelis as these limitations are defined."
Schneider reported from Istanbul.