Seeking to break a logjam in peace talks, Prime Minister Ehud Barak said today he would approve no more Jewish settlement construction in the disputed West Bank as Israelis and Palestinians hammer out a blueprint to end their long-standing conflict in the months ahead.
Barak's pledge, issued just hours before Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright arrived in Israel to attempt to revive the peace talks, was his first effort at putting the brakes on plans for settlement construction, which have accelerated sharply in the five months since he took office.
"It makes no sense, especially at this time, to initiate, to launch, major new projects when it is clear they create friction," he said. "In the course of the next three months, we are in the midst of a critical political struggle, and therefore wisdom is required."
But the prime minister's statement stopped short of granting Palestinian demands for an outright freeze on settlement construction in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which the Palestinians say will form the largest chunk of the state they hope to declare next year.
Israel captured the West Bank in 1967. Since then some 170,000 Jews have made their homes in hilltop settlements that the Palestinians, and many Western countries, regard as illegal under international law. The Clinton administration has repeatedly called the expansion of Jewish settlements "unhelpful" and warned that it could poison the atmosphere between the two sides just as peace talks reach their final stages.
On Monday, chief Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo effectively suspended peace talks between the two sides in response to Israel giving approval for the construction of nearly 500 new units on two existing settlements.
Israeli officials at first shrugged off the statement as posturing designed to coincide with Albright's visit. In fact, top Palestinian officials have been complaining bitterly about the acceleration of settlement construction plans for at least two months.
Abed Rabbo said he henceforth would refuse to discuss anything with the Israelis except a freeze on all building at Jewish settlements.
However, such a move would be difficult for Barak, whose diverse coalition government relies on the support of the chief settlers' party, known as the National Religious Party. The head of the party, Yitzhak Levy, has signed off on much of the settlement expansion in his capacity as housing minister in Barak's government.
An Israeli group, Peace Now, which opposes the settlements, says Barak's government already has approved more new settlement construction, about 3,200 units, than his right-wing predecessor, Binyamnin Netanyahu, did in an average year.
Israeli officials note that the new building approved now will not be completed for two or three years--well after the current timetable for the peace talks is expected to be completed. The two sides are aiming to reach a framework agreement on peace by mid-February and a comprehensive settlement of their conflict by next fall.