The Bush administration Tuesday repeated its call for an end to Israeli settlement activity in Palestinian areas. It said it is seeking clarification of reported plans by Israel to build 3,500 new housing units in the West Bank near Jerusalem.
The State Department is reiterating its opposition to new settlement activity and to unilateral acts by either side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, amid reports Israel plans to significantly add to settlements east of Jerusalem.
The comments follow Israeli newspaper accounts Monday that the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had approved plans for a complex of 3500 new houses and apartments that would link the big West Bank settlement of Maleh Adumim to the eastern borders of Jerusalem.
The project would have the practical effect of separating Palestinians in the West Bank from Arab neighborhoods in northern and eastern Jerusalem, and it has drawn protests from Palestinian officials, who call it a violation of the U.S.-backed Middle East peace "road map."
At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said the Bush administration is seeking clarification of Israeli plans, and that U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer had already raised the issue with Israeli officials.
He said Deputy White House National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch, due in Israel this week on a previously scheduled visit, would also take up the matter, and reiterate a "very clear" U.S. policy on settlement-building:
"There needs to be an end to settlement activity,” said Mr. Ereli. “This is a vital, essential component of the road map, along with commitments on the Palestinian side. We are committed to making progress toward that goal. We are opposed to unilateral acts by either side that create facts on the ground, and that have the result of prejudging issues that are to be settled through negotiations between the parties."
Mr. Ereli said the United States had no advance word on Israel's intentions with regard to the project, and that administration officials wanted to hear the facts in the matter directly from Israeli officials, not through press reports.
President Bush, whose June 2003 Middle East peace plan calls for a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel, has said the final status of Jerusalem should be decided by negotiations between the parties.
But he has also said that a peace accord would have to take into account "new realities on the ground," including existing Israeli population centers, and would likely preclude a return to lines existing before the 1967 Middle East war.
Israeli officials have interpreted the comments as U.S. acknowledgment that Israel would retain the major West Bank settlements around Jerusalem.
However, a senior diplomat here said Israeli officials should not have derived such a conclusion from talks with the Bush administration, which he said has been clear that this, too, is a matter for negotiation by the parties.