Palestinians: National Priority Map Is Blueprint for Settlement Expansion

Israel okays plan to pump funds into settlements; Barak: New funds will fall into hands of extremists.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat on Sunday called Israel's map of national priorities, which the cabinet has decided to expand to include additional West Bank communities, a "blueprint for future settlement expansion."

"Rather than make peace its number one priority, Israel continues to prioritize settlements and the relentless colonization of occupied Palestinian land, rendering the two-state solution politically and economically unviable," Erekat said in a statement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the cabinet's approval of a plan to change Israel's map of national priority areas to include more settlements did not signify a permanent stance on the future of these areas.

"We will determine the future of settlements only within the framework of a permanent agreement [with Palestinians]," Netanyahu said, according to Army Radio. "This map is intended to close rifts and this time, also to bring in our security concerns."

The cabinet approved on Sunday the controversial plan - which will pump millions of shekels into West Bank settlements - after Netanyahu decided to review the list of communities for which funds were earmarked.

All of the ministers from the Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas parties voted in favor, following a five-hour debate on the matter at the weekly cabinet meeting; Labor's five ministers opposed.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Labor chairman, attacked the plan during the discussion, warning that some of the money would end up in the hands of right-wing extremists.

"I don't think that we need to award them a prize in the form of including them in the national priority map," said Barak, referring to the plan.

The defense minister cited the desecration of a West Bank mosqueon Friday as an example of the rightists' activity.

He added that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's map of communities slated to receive state funds included a disproportional number of settlements.

The left-wing Meretz faction submitted a motion of no-confidence in response to the plan.

Netanyahu's decision to review the move appeared to be a compromise on the matter. The plan sparked a barrage of criticism since the premier decided to implement the move despite a freeze on new construction in the territories.

The Labor ministers said Netanyahu had agreed to hold a cabinet discussion on the plan and to form a panel to examine which communities should be included.

At the start of Sunday's cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said: "The government wants to provide an answer to those who carry on a daily basis the economic and security burden."

Barak, however, stressed that, "The Israel Defense Forces ensures the security of Israelis everywhere; even though the security situation in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] is inestimably better today than in previous years.

"The priority of the Labor party is the Galilee, the Negev, and the periphery; period."

Netanyahu added that a decision would be reached on the subject after a discussion, but did not say when that would happen.

The prime minister apparently gave in to pressure from the Labor and Shas parties over the move, and decided to form the committee as a temporary solution.

The proposed list included for the first time six West Bank settlements with a total population of about 110,000.

The cabinet vote came after sources close to Barak said Saturday that Netanyahu was expected to accept the defense minister's request to postpone the vote on the issue for a week.

"Apparently there will be a discussion only, rather than a vote," a source said. But sources in the Prime Minister's Bureau said yesterday that Netanyahu is to examine revising the map and that it was expected to be submitted for a vote at today's cabinet meeting.

"There will be a vote, but there will be a discussion about Ashkelon, Ma'aleh Adumim and any other proposal for changes in the [national priority] map," a source in the bureau said.