Settlement expansion will continue: Israel
* Israel plays down Washington’s rebuke
PARIS: Any US-Israeli disagreement is slight and expansion of Jewish West Bank settlements is likely to continue, despite a rebuke from Washington, Israel’s government spokesman said on Tuesday.
On a private French television channel, Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner downplayed a warning to stop expansion of a major West Bank settlement from US President George W Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at their summit in Texas on Monday.
Pazner said there is only a “slight disagreement” over the “interpretation” of an earlier agreement, and estimated that Bush’s warning would not stop the expansion of the Maaleh Adumim settlement. “I’m not afraid of that,” Pazner said on i-tele. “Sharon explained that what we are doing is within the agreement we have with the United States.”
At the summit on Monday, Bush issued an unusually stern warning that Israel must respect the terms of a US-backed peace plan known as the roadmap by freezing all settlement activity.
But speaking to reporters after the summit, Sharon insisted that despite the US leader’s comments, there had been “no disagreement whatsoever” over the expansion of the Maaleh Adumim settlement, where his government recently approved plans to build 3,500 new homes. “Our strategic plan is the retreat of Israel from Gaza but in return we have asked that areas mostly populated by Israelis in the West Bank are, in a future agreement with the Palestinians, attached to Israel and we continue to populate them,” said Pazner.
“This is what the American president wrote” in a letter to Sharon in April 2004, he said.
“There is a slight disagreement on the interpretation of this accord, but I must say it pales in comparison with the vast strategic agreement between Bush and Sharon. It is essential for the peace process ... that Israel retreats from Gaza in July and that is evident to all.”
In an interview published in Tuesday’s Le Figaro, Pazner said Bush had promised to support Israel keeping Jewish settlements in the West Bank and not insist on a return to the border before the 1967 war. “There has been an exchange of letters between George W Bush and Ariel Sharon which envisages that a peace agreement will take into account the presence of Jews in the (West Bank) and there won’t be a return to the 1967 border,” said Pazner. He said the decision to expand Maaleh Adumim and link it with Israel, which will cut off the rest of the West Bank from Arab east Jerusalem, was taken in light of this understanding.
Differences with US: Israel tried Wednesday to downplay differences with Washington exposed during Ariel Sharon’s summit with US President George W Bush as the Israeli leader prepared to head home from the United States.
Sharon had looked to his meeting at Bush’s Texas ranch on Monday as an opportunity to secure further backing for his controversial plan to pull troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip.
But while Bush reiterated his support for the so-called disengagement plan, the abiding image of their meeting was of the US leader underlining three times that Sharon must not pursue his plans to expand settlements in the West Bank and instead stick by his commitments under a peace plan known as the roadmap.
Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Danny Ayalon, said the summit had been “a success over a whole series of points” and emphasised that Bush had pledged to help underwrite the cost of developing areas of the southern Negev desert and Galilee where some of the Gaza settlers are set to relocate. “I was personally present at the meetings which took place in an atmosphere of genuinely deep friendship,” Ayalon told public radio. Ayalon said the differences between Israel and the United States over settlements were “nothing new” and that they would not affect the “intimate relations” between the two countries.
Israeli cabinet minister Tzahi Hanegbi, a close ally of Sharon, said that Bush had done “everything possible to assure Israel of his frienship and to not constrain Prime Minister Sharon.” The top-selling Yediot Aharonot however said there was no disguising the disputes that emerged and that Sharon’s attempts to heap blame on the new Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas for the stalled nature of the peace process did not wash with the US leader. afp