Israel freezes West Bank expansion plan, for now


Sat, Sep 03, 2005 - Page 7

Israel has frozen plans to expand its largest West Bank settlement and will only revive the project with US consent, Israel's vice premier said in remarks published yesterday, addressing an explosive issue that could determine the future of disputed Jerusalem and Mideast peacemaking.

Expansion of the Maaleh Adumim settlement would have cut off east Jerusalem from its West Bank hinterland and made it virtually impossible for the Palestinians to establish a future capital in that part of the city.

Palestinian officials yesterday welcomed the comments by Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, but said they have not been formally notified of a decision to suspend the expansion.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, urged Israel to call off the construction altogether.

The US has asked Israel not to expand West Bank settlements, in line with its commitment under the internationally backed "road map" peace plan.

As part of the Maaleh Adumim expansion, Israel had planned to build some 3,650 apartment units in a new neighborhood that would connect the settlement of 30,000 residents to Jerusalem. Only a few months ago, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was quoted as saying Israel would move ahead with the project.

However, Olmert said yesterday that the plan has been suspended, marking the first time a senior government official confirmed this in public.

"The state of Israel has committed itself to freeze the building," Olmert told the Jerusalem Post daily.

Sharon has said that in any future peace deal with the Palestinians, Israel would keep the large West Bank settlement blocs, including Maaleh Adumim.

Olmert told the newspaper that Maaleh Adumim would eventually be expanded.

"It is absolutely clear that at a certain point in the future, Israel will create continuity between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim, and so there is not even an argument that in the end we will have to build the project," Olmert said.

However, he added that Israel would not act unilaterally.

"When the conditions are ripe, we will raise the issue with the Americans again," he said.

The fate of Jerusalem is expected to become a central issue in the battle for leadership of Sharon's ruling Likud Party.

Sharon's challenger, former finance minister Benjamin Netan-yahu, toured Maaleh Adumim at the launch of his campaign earlier this week and accused Sharon of making too many concessions on Jerusalem.