Israeli Settlement Activity Surges Despite Peace Talks
TALMON, West Bank - Blue and yellow signs advertising new homes pepper the narrow West Bank roads that wind up to gated hilltop Jewish settlements."A new stage is on its way," boasts one billboard promoting a dozen homes being built in this small Israeli settlement not far from Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital.
As construction workers press ahead with work on these modest townhouses, telephone salesmen dismiss any concerns that Israel's pledge to restrict settlement construction in the West Bank could halt the building.
"We have all the permits we need," said Alon, a salesman for the new homes who fielded a call from McClatchy but didn't give his last name. "All of our projects can continue."
In the six months since President Bush launched his late-term diplomatic initiative at Annapolis, Md., Israel has dramatically accelerated the construction of homes on land that's central to any peace deal with the Palestinians.
In the 11 months before the Annapolis summit, Israel sought bids to build fewer than 100 homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Israel took from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War, according to Israeli government figures. Since Annapolis, Israel has asked companies to start building more than 1,700 homes, a 1,600 percent increase.
In the first three months of this year, after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that he'd rule on all building projects, construction companies started work on nearly 500 new homes in existing West Bank settlements, a 90 percent jump from the first three months of last year.
Since Olmert took direct oversight of West Bank settlement construction nearly six months ago, he's approved every project that's reached his desk from the Housing Ministry, whose responsibility includes construction around Jerusalem. The Defense Ministry, which is responsible for overseeing construction in the West Bank, didn't provide the numbers of housing units it's asked the prime minister to approve. But the prime minister's office could cite no project that he's rejected this year.
Olmert has imposed a limited ban on new settlement activity, but his order hasn't affected the expansion of major settlement blocks or the area around central Jerusalem, which he wants to retain in any deal with the Palestinians.
"They're building quickly," said Walid Natshei, an Arab construction worker from East Jerusalem who's helping to erect apartment buildings in Modiin Illit, a major settlement that recently was declared the fourth official Jewish city in the West Bank.
Olmert expects that major Jewish population centers, including Pisgat Zeev, Modiin Illit and Maale Adumim, will become part of Israel. But Palestinian negotiators haven't agreed to that, and are fighting to retain as much West Bank land as they can.
"When you get into serious negotiations, does anyone really think that areas like Pisgat Zeev or Modiin Illit or Maale Adumim are not going to remain under Israeli control? It's almost an international consensus," Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said. "If Israel was creating aggressive new facts on the ground it would be one thing, but we are building either in Jerusalem or in the large settlement blocks that are in that consensus."
Construction also continues, however, in smaller settlements on remote West Bank hilltops that Palestinians expect to become part of a new state.
The Bush administration has rebuked Olmert for pushing ahead with new building plans without considering the impact on peace talks with the Palestinians.
Earlier this week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned Israel's parliament that "there cannot be peace without an immediate and complete halt to settlement" building.
Olmert aides argue that he has a record of reining in unregulated settlement expansion. In the last year, he's eliminated government incentives for Israelis to move to settlements and has taken direct control over approving new construction.
"The Israeli government has gone farther than any previous Israeli government to bring under control unchecked growth in the settlements," Regev said.
"There's no political decision here," Regev added. "I've heard the prime minister say that anyone who promises to stop growth can't deliver because of the population growth and the needs of the city."
The ongoing construction, however, also reflects the nature of Israel's political system. Instead of building confidence for peace negotiations, Israeli leaders build settlements to shore up their domestic support, said Gershom Gorenberg, the author of "The Accidental Empire," a recent book on the birth of the settlement movement.
"What we're seeing is a classic example where a diplomatic initiative has the effect of accelerating settlement construction," Gorenberg said. "When there is a fear or suspicion that a diplomatic process might actually take place, however unlikely that seems to outside observers, there is a tendency among settlement supporters within the government to try to speed things up."
One of the places that are experiencing major pushes is Modiin Illit, where workers are building a new neighborhood and more than 1,000 units on West Bank land that's been the focal point of legal challenges and protests.
"There is no freeze here," said Yaakov Guterman, the mayor of Modiin Illit, who said the ban didn't apply to his settlement because it was built on undisputed land.
Expansion isn't uniform, though, even in the biggest settlements.
The number of people moving to the West Bank settlement of Ariel has leveled off in recent years because Israeli leaders have refused to approve expansion projects, Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman said.
"I have a stock of 3,000 apartment buildings to build and I don't have a permit," complained Nachman, who's received permission from Olmert to build only 50 housing units so far this year.
Modest construction also is quietly proceeding in some smaller settlements deeper in the West Bank on land that ostensibly would become part of a new Palestinian state.
In Talmon, for example, a settlement with about 800 residents on a hilltop between Modiin Illit and Ramallah, construction workers have gotten approval from Olmert's office to continue building a dozen homes being advertised by Amana, a settlement construction company.
Asked whether there was any possibility that construction could be blocked, Amana salesman Alon was adamant.
"No, no, no, of course not," said Alon. "We can build them; we have all the papers."
McClatchy special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report.
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