Israel rejects US call for settlement freeze

A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said "natural growth" would continue in existing settlements after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for a complete halt.

Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP
Jewish settlers lay cement for a foundation of a new building Thursday after Israeli troops razed other structures last week, in the West Bank outpost of Maoz Esther.

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Israeli officials have quickly rejected the Obama administration's firm call Wednesday for a halt to Israeli settlements without exceptions. It is a new setback to President Obama's efforts to reignite peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians and comes as the president meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday.

Obama's hard line on settlements, likely a bid to garner support among moderate Arab nations who would likely be willing to make concessions if Israel enacted a settlement freeze, is being met with expected enthusiasm from Palestinian officials. Israel had agreed to halt settlements under the Bush administration's 2003 road map plan.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Rodham Hillary Clinton indicated there was no wiggle room in Obama's position, reports the BBC: "Not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions. We think it is in the best interest of the effort that we are engaged in that settlement expansion cease."

Palestinian officials have said they will not resume peace talks with Israel unless it removes all roadblocks and freezes settlement construction. Some 500,000 Israelis live in more than 100 settlements within the West Bank.

But Israel quickly rebuffed Ms. Clinton's remarks, reports The Guardian.

Deepening differences are emerging between Israel's new government, led by the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the US administration, which has adopted a tougher position over Israel's actions towards the Palestinians than in the past.
Israel has said it will not build new settlements and is committed to removing settlement outposts that are not authorised by the government. However, Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said today that "normal life" would be allowed to continue inside existing settlements, which included new construction such as enlarging homes and building schools to accommodate growing families.

Clinton also said that the US will offer both sides "very specific proposals" in an effort to bring them to the table, reports the Daily Telegraph. Palestinian officials have for the most part welcomed the new American diplomatic overtures. Mr. Netanyahu has also expressed his willingness to start talks with the Palestinians again, but has not endorsed a two-state solution.

"I hope the United States will also establish a mechanism to obligate the Israeli government to respect its engagements under roadmap, namely a complete halt to settlement activity," Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said.

Mr. Abbas, who will meet with Obama on Thursday, is expected to focus during much of the meeting on reiterating the need for a settlement freeze. The Palestinian president will likely call for a settlement freeze along the lines of the one outlined in the US backed 2003 road map peace plan, reports the Ma'an News Agency, a Palestinian news wire.

Israeli officials have called a complete settlement freeze "out of order," reports Israel's Haaretz. Citing the need for natural growth construction, they also said according to the road map plan Israel would limit settlement growth if Palestinian authorities worked to combat terrorism, which they say has not happened.

In an analytical piece in the conservative Jerusalem Post, Herb Keinon writes that from the Israeli perspective it is difficult to tell how tough the Obama administration will be on settlements. After meeting with Netanyahu, he writes that Obama spoke only in general terms, and this new hard-line stance calling for a freeze of settlements came from Clinton, not the president directly.

Israel's position, or its hope, is that this issue can be finessed, just as it was finessed under the previous government. Or, as Netanyahu told a visiting Congressional delegation on Wednesday, there is a need to find a way with the US administration to enable "normal life" in the settlements to continue. If Obama says no settlements, but doesn't mention natural growth, leaving Clinton to do that, does that mean there is wiggle room? Nobody knows yet.

Israeli officials have already begun working to show their willingness to make some concessions on the settlement issue, reports the Los Angeles Times. Last week, Israelis removed three outposts – small, less developed settlements deep in the West Bank – and officials say they will remove a total of 26 "in an effort to vent pressure from Washington on natural growth in the bigger areas."

While Obama's stance has irked many Israeli supporters, some in the American Jewish community have welcomed it. There has been at least one campaign among the Jewish community to demonstrate support for the president's policy toward Israeli settlements. The JewSchool blog wrote that news of the policy was "music to my ears."

So though I've said it elsewhere, I'm going to reiterate it here: I've got Obama's back. The (however modest) dedicated political pressure of American Jewish doves will give the President the room to use all methods at his disposal, including various pressures on Israel. In a better world, [Netanyahu] would not be leading a right-wing coalition dedicated to Greater Israel and punishing Palestinians, and such concerted support would not be needed.
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