NEW WEST BANK SETTLEMENT EXPANSION ‘UNACCEPTABLE’ – says Abbas

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Netanyahu’s planned approval of the construction of new homes for settlers in the West Bank is ‘unacceptable’, President Mahmoud Abbas said on Friday in Paris. ‘What the Israeli government said (about the planned construction) is not useful. It is unacceptable for us. We want a freeze on all settlement construction,’ Abbas said after a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Abbas was reacting to reports that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu plans to approve the construction of hundreds of new settler homes in the occupied West Bank before considering a settlement freeze.

Abbas also told journalists that a possible summit with Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama in New York, on the margins of a UN General Assembly meeting, depended ‘on steps that are taken beforehand regarding a settlement construction freeze’. Abbas had on Thursday reiterated that he would not meet Netanyahu until construction in the settlements is halted.

The president added, after a meeting with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, that a resumption of the entire Middle East peace process depended on a freeze on Israeli settlement construction.

‘Regarding the peace process, we are prepared to continue the negotiations if Israel stops settlement construction,’ he said.

Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat for the Palestinian Authority had also slammed the move on Friday, saying it would derail any progress in peace negotiations. ‘I think the only thing that will be suspended by this announcement is the peace process,’ Erekat said. Netanyahu had leaked news of the new settlement apartments earlier on Friday.

The US has been pressing Israel to halt the construction of the settlements, which are illegal under international law and built on land seized from Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority leadership also says it will not negotiate with Netanyahu until he agrees to a freeze.

Even in verbally referring to a freeze it was unclear to what extent Israel would actually stop construction. Netanyahu made it clear through his aide that Israel does not intend to abandon its West Bank settlements, and that thousands of units would continue to be built in the West Bank even during a supposed ‘freeze’.

Netanyahu also said in the past that he would not allow a freeze on settlements in East Jerusalem.

The decision to continue expanding the settlements is at odds with Israel’s previous commitments under the Road Map, the Oslo agreements, and international humanitarian law.

It also falls short of the US and Palestinian demand that all settlement construction come to a halt, including in Jerusalem, before negotiations can resume. The new settler housing units would be in addition to the 2,500 that are already under construction and will continue to be built.

Although Netanyahu’s suggested ‘freeze’ would have a number of loopholes, the prime minister still faces opposition from his own party, the right-wing Likud. Right-wing politicians expressed their objections in a meeting on Thursday.

Netanyahu’s aide, who spoke anonymously to the press, sought to reassure the right wing, saying that these officials would be ‘pleasantly surprised’ by the agreements to be reached with the Americans.

Likud’s Central Committee is scheduled to hold another meeting this week to discuss the potential ‘freeze’. Settlers are well-represented on this committee.

According to news reports, US Special Envoy George Mitchell is expected in the region this week for key talks with Israeli officials. ‘In the next days the prime minister will approve construction starts and then he might consider a freeze for a limited time under certain conditions,’ an Israeli government official said.

He confirmed a report in the Jerusalem Post that said Netanyahu would consider a moratorium on settlement construction ‘for a few months’ after the green light is given to build hundreds of new homes in the occupied West Bank. The English-language newspaper said work on 2,500 housing units which is already under way also would continue.

‘The only thing suspended by this announcement will be the peace process,’ Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. ‘This is absolutely unacceptable,’ he said, speaking by telephone from Paris where he is accompanying Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

A similar report in the Haaretz newspaper said Netanyahu told US officials of his decision to authorise construction a few weeks ago. ‘The Americans do not agree and are not happy about it, but we put it on the table a long time ago,’ the daily quoted an unnamed senior government official as saying.

Israeli media said Netanyahu would take up the issue with Washington’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell this week.

Erekat insisted Israel had already responded ‘with total defiance’ to US calls for a freeze. ‘The real Israeli official answer is being conducted on the ground by continuing the building of housing units and settlements,’ he said.

‘Concerning the peace process, we reaffirmed that we were entirely disposed to go forward with negotiations for the final status if Israel stops settlement building,’ Abbas said last Thursday. ‘This is the main concern of the American administration and of all of our European friends with France leading,’ he told a joint news conference with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in Paris.

‘I think that we can get a result this month’ before the UN General Assembly, Abbas said. ‘Then we will be able to resume peace negotiations.’ World leaders will attend the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York from September 23.

Abbas confirmed rumours of a US suggestion he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet on the sidelines of the next UN General Assembly meeting in New York later this month.

Addressing a press conference following meetings with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on prospects for peace process progress and Palestinian unity, Abbas said he and Mubarak both ‘wonder on what basis such a meeting will be held, and for what purpose’. He went on to say, ‘If it is a meeting for the sake of meeting only, this will not be possible. But if it is a meeting to clarify visions about settlements and other major issues, we are okay with it going ahead.’

Abbas reiterated that a settlement freeze was a precondition for any peace talks, and not one set by Palestinians but by the American-backed Roadmap. He called the issue one of the most important obligations that Israel has not committed to. The President also said his stance on a settlement freeze included natural growth.

‘Israel wants to haggle and suggest freezing 70% or 60% of growth and construction under the pretext that some buildings are already under construction. This is not our problem, and Israel must stop all settlement activities before we sit for final status negotiations where we stopped during Olmert’s term,’ Abbas explained.

Separately, French President Nicholas Sarkozy and his Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told Abbas during his trip to the country that if progress is made on the idea of halting settlement activity, France and Egypt would propose hosting a second of the member countries of the Union for the Mediterranean summit in the fall, which would accompany the resumption of peace negotiations on three tracks.