By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 26, 2009
The Obama administration hailed the Israeli government's announcement Wednesday that it intends to temporarily halt new residential construction in Palestinian areas of the West Bank, even though the plan falls far short of the administration's original demand for a full freeze and Palestinian officials rejected it as inadequate.
"We believe the steps announced by the prime minister are significant and could have substantial impact on the ground," said George J. Mitchell, the special U.S. envoy for Middle East peace. "For the first time ever, an Israeli government will stop housing approvals and all new construction of housing units and related infrastructure in West Bank settlements. That's a positive development."
Under the plan, disclosed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel would halt construction for 10 months, although 2,900 housing units -- roughly the number that would have been built in that period -- would be grandfathered in and completed. The plan also does not appear to include East Jerusalem, which Palestinians expect will be the capital of a future Palestinian state, and it would allow the continued construction in the West Bank of public buildings such as schools and synagogues.
About 300,000 Israelis live in Jewish settlements on the West Bank. An additional 190,000 live in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in an act that no other country has recognized. Israel agreed to -- but never implemented -- a total freeze on settlement construction in 2003, when it accepted the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.Conciliatory U.S. tone
Despite Netanyahu's caveats, the Obama administration appeared eager to put a painful and lengthy dispute with Israel over settlement expansion behind it. The right-leaning Netanyahu was able to rally Israeli public opinion against President Obama over the issue, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he would not seek reelection because he was angry at the United States for appearing to accept less than a freeze. The administration had also hoped to win parallel concessions from Arab states, such as symbolic steps toward normal ties with Israel, but those efforts failed.
Mitchell reiterated that the administration does not recognize the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and that Wednesday's development was a unilateral act by Israel, not the result of any agreement between Israel and the United States. However, it came about as a result of extensive bilateral discussions, with sources saying a private understanding was reached that the Israeli government would be expected to maintain the moratorium if peace talks appeared to be making progress. The lure for the Palestinians is that, over time, this understanding could turn the temporary halt into a sustained freeze.
In an unusual statement issued shortly before Mitchell met with reporters, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton laid out the negotiating parameters that U.S. officials have been discussing with Israeli and Palestinian officials. Notably, she said the Palestinians have a goal of "an independent and viable state based on 1967 lines, with agreed swaps." It appeared to be the first time a senior U.S. official has spoken of negotiating a final border based on the boundary that existed before the 1967 war, in which Israel seized the West Bank; previous administrations have avoided such terminology.
Clinton described Israel's negotiating goal as "a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements."
Although prospects for new high-level talks are dim, Mitchell suggested that the administration would push ahead with a mixture of lower-level talks and parallel discussions with the parties to the dispute. He noted that if the two sides can reach an understanding on a common border, the settlement debate would be rendered moot.
"My personal and fervent wish is that we will, during this process, at some point have a resolution of the issue of borders, so that there will no longer be any question about settlement construction, so that Israelis will be able to build what they want in Israel, and Palestinians will be able to build what they want in Palestine," Mitchell said.Propaganda or progress?
The initial reaction from Palestinians was negative, however.
Mustafa Barghouti, an independent Palestinian legislator, said: "This is the biggest propaganda deception by Netanyahu ever. In fact, there is no freeze, no delay and no change in policy."
He added: "The statement will not bring a breakthrough in the current stalemate -- quite the opposite. It will cause more tension, as no Palestinian leader can agree to exclude Jerusalem from any kind of settlement freeze."
Michael B. Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, said that Netanyahu's announcement is "unprecedented for any government, right, left or center, and it was made in the absence of any concessions by the Arab world, which the administration failed to achieve."
Geoffrey Aronson of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, who closely tracks settlement activity, agreed that no Israeli prime minister had made a similar announcement but said the caveats rendered it virtually meaningless.
Netanyahu "is restraining an increase," he said. "The planning process can't stop. People can go to court, and there is no legal justification for them to stop the machinery of settlement expansion."
Aronson also said it would be difficult for the administration to track whether a real moratorium is in place.
Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.