Monday, January 26, 2009

Netanyahu: Existing West Bank settlements will grow

Talk about provocative! This may be simply electioneering, but methinks Mr. Netanyahu has fired a shot across the bow of the soon-to-arrive George Mitchell - and, of course, President Obama. And by the same token, he's thrust another dagger into the barely beating heart of Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, whose inconsequentiality as a "partner" for negotiating a just settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is now made even more apparent.

Of course, Netanyahu can say that he's simply following in the steps of George Bush's pronouncement that the West Bank settlements will remain in Israel's hands - which forces Obama either to make a sharper break with Bush's policies (and thus rattle the cages of Congressional Republicans, whose support he needs on other fronts) or simply go along, which undercuts his chances of increasing his credibility in the Muslim world.

Israel's Netanyahu: Existing settlements will grow

JERUSALEM (AP) — The front-runner in Israel's election next month said he would allow existing West Bank settlements to expand for "natural growth" — a policy likely to face opposition from the Palestinians and the new U.S. administration.

The comments by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in an Israeli newspaper on Monday, just two days before Washington's new Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, is expected to make his first visit to the region. Mitchell, a critic of Israel's West Bank settlements, is expected to meet with Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, and focus on ways to revive peace talks in the wake of Israel's recent offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu, an opponent of current U.S.-backed peace talks, was quoted by the Haaretz daily as telling international Mideast envoy Tony Blair at a meeting Sunday that he would continue Israel's policy of allowing existing settlements to expand.

"I have no intention of building new settlements in the West Bank," Netanyahu was quoted as saying. "But like all the governments there have been until now, I will have to meet the needs of natural growth in the population. I will not be able to choke the settlements."

A Netanyahu spokeswoman, Dina Libster, confirmed the quotes were accurate. Blair's office did not return messages seeking comment.

Settlement construction in the West Bank has been a key obstacle to peace talks over the years. The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank as part of a future independent state that would also include the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. They say Israel's settlements, now home to 280,000 people in the West Bank, make it increasingly difficult for them to establish a viable state.

Nearly all Israeli settlement construction over the past decade has taken place in existing West Bank communities. And Netanyahu's positions do not significantly differ from outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has allowed construction in existing settlements to continue even while holding peace talks with the Palestinians.

Still, Mitchell's appointment has some Israeli leaders worried that the new administration of President Barack Obama will be tougher on Israel than the Bush administration was. In 2001, Mitchell called for a freeze on all Israeli settlement construction when he led an international commission to investigate violence in the Middle East.

Polls show Netanyahu's Likud Party handily winning the Feb. 10 elections, a victory that would allow him to reclaim the premiership he held between 1996 and 1999. Netanyahu has said he would try to refocus peace talks on building the Palestinian economy and governing institutions.

That approach does not sit well with Palestinian negotiators, who want the talks to continue focusing on resolving the key disputes with Israel over settlements, final borders, the fate of disputed Jerusalem and a solution for Palestinian refugees.

Further complicating the peace talks is the Hamas militant group's takeover of Gaza in June 2007. Israel on Jan. 17 ended a devastating three-week military offensive against Hamas.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have agreed that the foundation for any peace accord would be the internationally backed "road map" peace plan, which explicitly bans all settlement construction, including natural growth, and requires the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups. Israel has argued that natural growth should not be included in the ban.

In Gaza, the EU's top humanitarian official, Louis Michel, announced euro58 million ($74 million) in aid to Palestinians, including euro32 million ($41 million) earmarked to "respond to the dramatic humanitarian situation in Gaza" following Israel's offensive. But he said none of the funds would be channeled to Hamas, which he said "is acting in the way of a terrorist movement."

The EU, like Israel and the U.S., considers Hamas a terrorist group. Still, voicing the comments in the heart of Hamas' stronghold carried extra significance.

Michel also called for those responsible for the recent violence to be investigated on both sides. The Israeli offensive, launched to halt years of Hamas rocket attacks, killed nearly 1,300 people, more than half of them civilians, and caused extensive damage to Gaza's infrastructure. Thirteen Israelis also died in the fighting.

De Montesquiou reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.

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