Israel to Freeze Settlement Construction Ahead of Summit

Move also meant to help persuade Arab, Muslim countries to attend Annapolis peace conference.

Israel will announce a freeze on settlement construction prior to the Annapolis conference, and will also declare its willingness to dismantle illegal West Bank settlement outposts, government sources said Tuesday.

Tuesday night, a group of senior Israeli officials flew to Washington to discuss the components of this freeze with Bush Administration officials. They will also brief the Americans on Israel's security interests in the talks with the Palestinians.

In recent weeks, the United States has been demanding that Israel make significant gestures on settlements and outposts prior to the conference, to compensate for its refusal to discuss the "core issues" of a final-status agreement until after the conference ends. These gestures are meant to make it clear that Israel does not intend to remain in the territories, and understands that its presence there is only temporary.

According to the Israeli government sources, the Americans asked Israel whether it preferred to announce a settlement freeze or outpost evacuations. "Of the two, a settlement freeze is easier than evacuating the outposts, because this only involves a declaration, not a confrontation with settlers in the field," explained one.

The settlement freeze is also meant to help persuade Arab and Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia, to attend the Annapolis conference.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa had put a settlement freeze at the top of the list of gestures that the league was demanding of Israel before the conference.

Domestically, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert intends to present these gestures as a mere reconfirmation of the commitments Israel took upon itself when it accepted the road map peace plan. The first phase of the road map, which was adopted by Ariel Sharon's government in 2003, requires Israel to freeze all settlement activity, "including natural growth," and evacuate all outposts set up after March 2001.

Olmert met Tuesday with leaders of the Yesha Council of settlements for the first time since taking office, and told them that "the first stage of the road map speaks of dismantling outposts and freezing settlements, and that's a document that all Israeli governments, including Likud ministers, have accepted." Sharon, who founded the Kadima Party that Olmert now heads, was a member of Likud when Israel accepted the road map.

Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak all consider it vital to reach an understanding with the Americans on what a settlement freeze entails, which is why the delegation flew to Washington Tuesday night. Olmert would like the large settlement blocs - Ariel, Ma'aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and the settlements around Jerusalem - to be exempted from this freeze, as Israel wants to keep these blocs under any future agreement.

U.S. President George Bush seemingly backed Israel's demand to retain the blocs in his April 2004 letter to Sharon, which stated that "in light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949." Nevertheless, without an explicit agreement with Washington to exempt the blocs from the freeze, "we're afraid that Israel would continue to build in the blocs, or implement existing plans; Peace Now would complain; and we'd look like liars and people who don't keep their promises," explained a government source.

As for the outposts, Israel has repeatedly promised to evacuate them, but has never done so. The delegation comprises Olmert's bureau chief, Yoram Turbowicz, and his political advisor, Shalom Turjeman; Foreign Ministry Director General Aharon Abramowitz; and Major General Ido Nehushtan, head of the Israel Defense Forces' Plans and Policy Directorate.