The government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, in office just five months, has sharply accelerated expansion plans for Jewish settlements in the West Bank on the eve of critical negotiations for a comprehensive Middle East peace deal, an Israeli peace group said today.
Since taking office in July, Barak's government, a coalition that relies on a settlers' party for support, has approved construction of 3,196 housing units in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. That exceeds the 3,000 or so that Barak's right-wing predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu, approved in an average year, according to the Israeli group Peace Now, which opposes the settlements.
The Israeli construction program in the contested West Bank has been intensified despite bitter protests by Palestinians, who say it undermines trust and poisons the atmosphere for forthcoming talks meant to end a century of conflict between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land.
"This is the largest settlement expansion since 1967," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told journalists. "It will lead to the collapse of the peace process. . . . It is completely unacceptable for this government to continue these measures and at the same time expect business as usual."
The two sides are trying to reach the broad outlines of a durable peace settlement by mid-February.
The flare-up over the settlements coincides with a planned visit to Israel and the West Bank this week by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. The Clinton administration regards the expansion of Jewish settlements as "unhelpful," but has been powerless to stop it.
Most of the settlements earmarked for major expansion are close to the Green Line demarcating Israel's international border, and most are likely to remain under Israeli sovereignty under Barak's vision of a final peace deal, Peace Now acknowledged.
But the pace of the expansion and its timing just as peace talks are coming down to the wire, have infuriated the Palestinians, who regard all settlements as illegal.
Barak has pledged that no matter what the outcome of peace talks, Israel will retain control of a majority of the 144 Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where 170,000 Israelis live. Although he has not said so explicitly, the implication is that some of the more remote settlements will be abandoned.
In a statement, his office said today that the expansion plans had been approved by previous governments and Barak is legally bound by those decisions.
Peace Now, as well as the Palestinians, dismissed that argument and said his position is guided mainly by coalition politics--particularly by the necessity of keeping the pro-settlement National Religious Party in the fold. The Ministry of Housing and Construction, which approved most of the construction projects, is run by the leader of the National Religious Party, Yitzhak Levy.
"This is one of the prices that Barak pays for having this mixed coalition government," said Amiran Goldblum, a leader of Peace Now. "I tend to believe that he himself would not have liked to construct that much."
The latest approvals for new construction, published Thursday, would add 493 housing units to two Jewish settlements.
Yehudit Tayar, spokeswoman for the main settlers' council, said the expansion plans are in line with the settlements' natural rate of population growth. Speaking to Israel Radio, she said harsh anti-Israel rhetoric by Palestinians did more to undermine trust between the two sides.