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Clinton Rebuffs Israel on Settlement Freeze

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday she is unaware of any binding U.S. agreement with Israel allowing that country to continue expanding settlements in the West Bank. Israel contends it had an understanding with the Bush administration that so-called "natural growth" of settlements could continue even if no new ones were started.

Secretary Clinton has given a bluntly worded rebuff to claims by a former senior Israeli official that the United States committed five years ago to allow Israel to continue adding housing units to settlements within their existing boundaries.

The comments by the Secretary of State add a new element to what appears to be a growing rift between the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Obama administration, which has taken a tough line against Israeli settlement expansion.

In a column in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot earlier this week, the chief of staff to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - Dov Weisglass - said that the Bush administration in 2004 recognized Israel's right to expand settlements within existing "construction lines" for those communities - despite its commitment under the international peace "road map" to freeze settlement activity.

However, at a press event Friday with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglo, Clinton said there is no evidence of such a commitment in documents on the subject conveyed by the Bush administration to the new U.S. administration.

"We have the negotiating record, that is the official record that was turned over to the Obama administration by the outgoing Bush administration. There is no memorialization of any informal and oral agreement. If they did occur, which of course people say they did, they did not become part of the official position of the United States government. And there are contrary documents that suggest they were not to be viewed as in any way contradicting the obligations that Israel undertook pursuant to the road map," she said.

The road map was issued in 2003 by the international "Quartet" on the Middle East, including the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. Under it, Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to a sequence of steps - including a freeze on Israeli settlement building and an end to Palestinian terrorism and incitement - leading eventually to a two state resolution of the Middle East conflict.

Clinton said late last month at a meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Ali Aboul Gheit that the U.S. view of Israel's road map commitment is a full stop to settlement activity with no natural-growth exception.

President Barack Obama, in his policy address in Cairo Thursday, said the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements and that any further construction violates previous agreements and undermines peace efforts.

Israeli officials, in the wake of the Obama speech, have been quoted as saying Israel is prepared to dismantle more than 20 unauthorized settler outposts in the West Bank but that building within existing settlements must continue to accommodate growing families.