Israel's Cabinet has approved a new "priority map" that grants additional funding to tens of thousands of Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Cabinet ministers that the map is part of government efforts to incorporate peripheral areas into mainstream Israel. He said the priority areas, which include development towns and Israeli Arab communities as well as West Bank settlements, would receive benefits in education, employment, infrastructure and security."
Oded Ravivi, who heads the local council at the big West Bank settlement of Efrat near Jerusalem, says it is a good plan. "For the last 20 years we have been in the front line, we have suffered terrorist attacks. We hire our own security company to defend the city of Efrat. We have extra needs that a normal city does not have. And these settlements need some sort of aid and that is why the government has decided to include them in the list," he said.
The plan points to a mixed message from Mr. Netanyahu: On the one hand, he imposed a freeze on West Bank settlement construction last month in response to pressure from the United States, which sees the settlements as an obstacle to peace. On the other hand, he is signaling to the settlers that he will not trade their homes in a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians.
Officials say about 90 out of 120 West Bank settlements are on the list, suggesting that Mr. Netanyahu hopes to keep three-quarters of these communities under Israeli control.
Palestinian officials said the plan shows Mr. Netanyahu's so-called settlement freeze has no substance and is a propaganda ploy aimed at appeasing the international community. They say the Palestinians will not return to peace talks until all settlement activity stops.
But Israel says the focus on the settlements is exaggerated. Of $530-million earmarked for the plan, only five percent, or about $30-million, will go to Jewish settlements.