The State Department said Monday the United States continues to seek a freeze on Israeli settlement activity even though it has refrained from criticizing new moves by Israel to expand existing West Bank settlements. It said technical-level talks are being held with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on its building plans.
The Bush administration is insisting that it continues to support, and seek, an end to Israeli settlement activity in Palestinian areas amid press reports and Arab charges that it has softened its stand on the issue.
Palestinian and other Arab criticism of U.S. policy was stirred by a Saturday New York Times report quoting American and Israeli sources as saying the administration has signaled support for growth in at least some key settlements in the West Bank.
The Bush administration has also refrained from direct criticism of announcements by Israel in recent days that it is soliciting bids for construction of more than 1,500 new housing units at West Bank settlements.
At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said the United States is having technical-level talks with Israel to clarify its intentions with regard to the settlements in question.
In the meantime, he insisted the United States has not stepped back from support for a freeze in Israeli settlement activity called for in the international "road map" for Middle East peace and at last year's Aqaba summit attended by President Bush.
"Settlement activity in the occupied territories must stop," he said. "That is the position of the United States. That is what the parties signed up for. The 'road map' provides a way forward toward a freeze on settlement activity. That is what we are working for. So I think it's wrong and inaccurate to write that somehow the United States is condoning or supporting or otherwise turning a blind eye to agreements made in the Road Map, and at Aqaba. Those agreements remain."
Israeli officials have said they interpret a freeze as allowing the so-called "thickening" of existing settlements, through the building of new buildings within settlement boundaries or adding higher floors to existing structures.
A senior diplomat who spoke to reporters here said the U.S. interpretation of the "road map" is that it precludes settlement expansion including even so-called "natural growth" and that the issue is among those under discussion with Israel.
The "road map" was drafted by Secretary of State Colin Powell and diplomats from Russia, the European Union and the United Nations as the pathway to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the end of 2005.
Mr. Powell will be meeting with his partners in the international "quartet" on the Middle East in New York next month on the sidelines of the new U.N. General Assembly session.