Israeli ministers: No West Bank settlement freeze
Interior Minister: U.S. demands tantamount to 'expulsion;' Israeli officials say U.S. favoring Palestinians.
Senior members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet reiterated Sunday that the government has rejected a U.S. demand to halt all activity in West Bank settlements, despite strongly-worded demands from the Obama administration to do so.
"I want to make it clear that the current Israeli government will not accept in any way the freezing of legal settlement activity in Judea and Samaria [West Bank," Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz told Army Radio.
Meanwhile, Interior Minister Eli Yishai of Shas told his fellow cabinet ministers Sunday that the U.S. demand on settlement activity was tantamount to "expulsion."
President Barack Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, have both made very public calls for Israel to institute a total freeze on construction in all West Bank settlements. Tensions between Washington and Jerusalem have been growing as a result.
Israeli political officials have accused the administration of taking a preferential line toward the Palestinians on this issue.
Some officials expressed disappointment after Tuesday's round of meetings in London with George Mitchell, Obama's envoy to the Middle East. "We're disappointed," said one senior official. "All of the understandings reached during the [George W.] Bush administration are worth nothing."
Another official said the U.S. administration is refusing every Israeli attempt to reach new agreements on settlement construction. "The United States is taking a line of granting concessions to the Palestinians that is not fair toward Israel," he said.
The Israeli officials attributed the unyielding U.S. stance to the speech Obama will make in Cairo this Thursday, in which he is expected to deliver a message of reconciliation to the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Mitchell was joined at the London talks by his deputy David Hale, Daniel B. Shapiro (the head of the National Security Council's Middle East desk), and State Department deputy legal adviser Jonathan Schwartz.
The Israeli delegation consisted of National Security Adviser Uzi Arad, Netanyahu diplomatic envoy Yitzhak Molcho, Defense Ministry chief of staff Mike Herzog and deputy prime minister Dan Meridor.
Herzog spoke to Mitchell and his staff about understandings reached by former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon with the Bush administration on allowing continued building in the large West Bank settlement blocs. He asked that a similar agreement be reached with the Obama government.
Meridor spoke of the complexities characterizing the coalition headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and said Washington's demands of a complete construction freeze would lead to the dissolution of the Netanyahu government.
The Israeli delegates were stunned by the uncompromising U.S. stance, and by statements from Mitchell and his staff that agreements reached with the Bush administration were unacceptable. An Israeli official privy to the talks said that "the Americans took something that had been agreed on for many years and just stopped everything."
"What about the Tenet Report, which demanded that the Palestinians dismantle the terror infrastructure?" said the official, referring to former CIA director George Tenet. "It's unfair, and there is no reciprocity shown toward the Palestinians."
The Israeli envoys said the demand for a total settlement freeze was not only unworkable, but would not receive High Court sanction. Tensions reportedly reached a peak when, speaking of the Gaza disengagement, the Israelis told their interlocutors, "We evacuated 8,000 settlers on our own initiative," to which Mitchell responded simply, "We've noted that here."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak will travel to Washington on Sunday in an attempt to put further pressure on the Obama administration.
"We want to reach an agreement with the United States on ways to advance the peace process," said a senior Jerusalem official. The U.S. stance, he said, "will stall the process and bring about tension and stagnation, which will hurt both Israel and the United States."