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WASHINGTON, Sep 4 2009 (IPS) - The White House reprimanded the Israeli government Friday over reports that Israel plans to build hundreds of new housing units in West Bank settlements, the latest in a series of showdowns between Washington and Jerusalem over settlement construction.
The new construction plans represent a direct challenge to the Barack Obama administration’s Middle East peace plans, which have thus far been based around demands for a full settlement freeze in return for normalisation gestures from Arab countries.
Citing senior Israeli sources, multiple media reports claimed Friday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planned to approve the new units prior to implementing a temporary freeze of West Bank settlements
The hundreds of new units would be in addition to some 2,500 units that are already under construction, and Netanyahu has also refused to include Jerusalem in any settlement freeze.
On Friday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs issued a statement expressing “regret” about the reports of new construction, calling it “inconsistent with Israel’s commitment under the  Roadmap [For Peace]”.
“As the president has said before, the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop,” Gibbs said.
Abbas has stated that a settlement freeze is a prerequisite for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Dovish pro-Israel organisations in the U.S. praised the Obama administration for its statement.
J Street, the new pro-Israel lobby, stated that it is “deeply dismayed” by the new construction plans, noting that “continued settlement growth will make it impossible to achieve a negotiated, peaceful two-state solution to the conflict, which is critical to Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic homeland”.
“We commend the White House for setting the record straight,” said Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now (APN). “We also reiterate that a settlement freeze is not just in the interest of the United States. First and foremost, it is in the national security interest of Israel”.
Nir also noted that the proposed construction would render any temporary settlement freeze merely “virtual”.
Israeli Labour MP Ophir Pines-Paz criticised the construction as unnecessary and damaging, Ha’aretz reported.
The Obama administration and its top Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, have pressed Netanyahu for a full settlement freeze in accordance with the 2002 Roadmap.
While Netanyahu may hope to alleviate this pressure by agreeing to a temporary freeze – which reports suggest will likely last for less than a year – the decision to approve the new units is sure to inflame tensions with Washington.
But this may be Netanyahu’s intention. Acquiescing to the U.S. on settlements would be likely to splinter his right-wing coalition, which relies heavily on pro-settler parties.
Instead, Netanyahu has sought to bolster his once-shaky political position within Israel by publicly standing up to the U.S. on settlements.
The latest spat is far from the first public clash over the settlements issue in recent months.
In July, Netanyahu announced that a planned building project in East Jerusalem would proceed despite U.S. protests, and defiantly proclaimed that Israeli sovereignty over a “united Jerusalem…cannot be challenged”.
Since all major plans for a two-state solution involve Palestinian control of East Jerusalem as a capital city, Netanyahu’s statement posed a direct challenge to the Obama administration’s policy – and undercut his much-publicised acceptance of the idea of a Palestinian state in June.
But settlement construction in Jerusalem enjoys more support both in Israel and among the U.S. Jewish community than construction in the West Bank, leading Netanyahu to use Jerusalem as a rallying point in the dispute with Washington.
Some hardline pro-Israel groups did in fact take Netanyahu’s side in the Jerusalem dispute. The Conference of Presidents of Major Americans Jewish Organisations issued a statement calling the administration’s objections to the proposed building project in East Jerusalem “disturbing”.
Soon thereafter, Israel evicted Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem, prompting the U.S. State Department to complain to Israeli ambassador Michael Oren about what it called “provocative” and “unacceptable” actions.
Since Mitchell began pushing for a full settlement freeze in January, the Israeli government has argued that any freeze must make an exemption for “natural growth” in the settlements.
But critics note that “natural growth” has in recent years served as a loophole to legitimise all settlement growth, and the Obama administration has accordingly refused to make a natural growth exception.
Netanyahu’s allies in Israel and the U.S also pointed to agreements that were allegedly brokered between the governments of George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon by Bush’s top Middle East aide, Elliott Abrams. In particular, they highlight a 2004 letter from Bush to Sharon recognising Israel’s right to many large settlement blocs that they suggest will remain under Israeli control under any final-status agreement.
Abrams himself has argued that Obama should recognise these agreements and desist in his calls for a full settlement freeze throughout the occupied territories.
However, Sharon’s former chief of staff Dov Weissglas told The Washington Times in July that no such agreement was ever finalised because the U.S. and Israel never agreed on where construction would be permitted.
As Washington considers how to deal with the reported new settlement construction, many analysts express concern that the Obama administration has become mired in the settlements dispute, and the related goal of Arab normalisation measures, at the expense of the broader peace process.
Some urge Obama to move quickly to negotiations to solidify a final-status agreement that would establish borders the Israeli and Palestinian states, thereby establishing exactly where Israel can and cannot build.
The Obama administration appears to be thinking along similar lines. Reports suggest that the administration is planning to make an announcement regarding new Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations later this month.
The continued and rancorous dispute over settlements, however, has already left many observers increasingly pessimistic about the negotiations’ prospects for success.
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