Barak Heads to U.S. in Bid to End Settlements Row

Despite Barak claim that settlement freeze impossible, Modi'in Ilit banned from building hundreds of new homes.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak was set to head to the United States Monday in a bid to end a quarrel with U.S. President Barack Obama's administration over Israel's refusal to completely halt West Bank settlement construction.

Barak is expected to propose two potential compromises on the matter: Either a temporary complete settlement freeze, or the limiting of building in settlement blocs to high-rise construction only.

The defense minister, who is also the chairman of the center-left Labor party, will tell Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, that Israel cannot completely halt settlement construction.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, for his part, reiterated Monday that negotiations wouldn't resume while settlement expansion continues.

Despite Israel's official stance, the Israel Defense Forces has banned the settlement of Modi'in Ilit from building hundreds of new homes.

The decision by the GOC Central Command, Major General Gadi Shamni, which was approved by Barak, pertains to two new neighborhoods in the ultra-Orthodox settlement.

Shamni issued the ban last month, in the wake of a High Court ruling that ordered the relocation of the separation fence around the Palestinian village of Bil'in, near Modi'in Ilit.

The construction freeze is necessary for "maintaining security and public order in the area and moving ahead with the separation fence," Shamni wrote.

As a direct result, the construction of some 40 high-rise buildings will be halted, although they are though in advanced stages. Tenders for hundreds of housing units that have already been approved will not be carried out, even though some units have already been sold.

According to a precedent set by the Rabin government in 1992, which imposed a complete construction freeze in the settlements, the state will compensate the contractors for the losses they will incur.

Settler leader condemns Barak plan to offer temporary halt

The Yesha Council of settlements blasted on Monday reports that Barak was going to offer the U.S. a complete halt to construction for three months.

"These tactical tricks will in the end lead us to a strategic defeat," Yesha Council Chairman Danny Dayan told Army Radio.

"The time has come for the government to tell the truth - that it was elected because it believes that a Palestinian state is an existential threat to the State of Israel, that Jews have a right to settle any place in the Land of Israel and to build, not only for natural growth."

The High Court has backed the government's right to halt settlement construction, citing the its prerogative to set priorities for budget allocations.

"The national priority, including diplomatic and economic decisions, is subject, naturally, to the policy stipulated by the elected government," the court said.

Peace Now Secretary General Yariv Oppenheimer, meanwhile, urged Barak on Monday to impose a total construction freeze in the settlements, at any cost.

"It is very unfortunate that of all people, the chairman of the Labor party is advocating Yesha Council and urges the United States to allow settlement expansion," Oppenheimer told Army Radio.

"I would expect him to follow the road paved by Yitzhak Rabin and his [Labor] government and impose a complete ban, even on projects whose construction is currently underway."