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Israel Prodded Into Settlement Freeze in Bid To Kick-Start Peace Conference

Washington — With only days remaining before a peace summit scheduled for next week in Annapolis, Md., the Bush administration is pressuring Israel to take significant steps to curb settlement expansion in the West Bank.

The demand for a settlement freeze took center stage this week, as Washington made a last-minute push to iron out unresolved details — some quite basic — of what had originally been envisioned as talks aimed at resolving the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has since become a much more modest attempt to revive the moribund road map peace plan from 2003.

The renewed focus on the road map in recent months led American officials to take another look at the demands made by the peace plan, starting with a settlement freeze by Israel and a crackdown on terrorism by the Palestinian Authority. Last Monday, the Americans’ prodding produced the most explicit pledge yet by Jerusalem to limit expansion in the West Bank.

“We have promised not to build new settlements, and we will not build,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared during the weekly Cabinet meeting. “We have promised not to expropriate land; we will not expropriate. We promised to remove illegal outposts, and we will remove them.”

In the final days before the summit, there was a flurry of 11th-hour jockeying, with the Palestinians declaring that Israel was backtracking from a previously agreed-upon component of the joint declaration they were set to make at the summit, while the Israelis demanded Arab recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Washington, meanwhile, added to the frenzy by repeatedly postponing issuing formal invitations to the summit until Tuesday, less than a week before talks were scheduled to begin. Diplomatic sources, however, said this week that last-minute bargaining is common before such peace talks and does not necessarily indicate that a crisis is in the making.

American activity on the settlement issue has increased in recent months, with both the embassy in Tel Aviv and the consulate in East Jerusalem looking into Israeli land annexations and expansion of existing settlements. Sources in the administration have told the Forward that in an unusual step, the American ambassador to Israel, Richard Jones, met last month with Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch to discuss recent rulings regarding settlement activity.

During the meeting, Jones asked Beinisch about rulings regarding the retroactive approval of illegal settlement neighborhoods and about the reasoning behind decisions relating to the route of the separation barrier. An Israeli source who confirmed that the meeting took place said it was seen as an American attempt to better understand recent decisions regarding settlement activity rather than criticize rulings made by the Israeli legal system.

Jones and the embassy staff also made inquires into allegations about the further expansion of Israeli in recent weeks. Last month, an American cable from Tel Aviv reported a growing “concern that these actions will weaken” P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas and would “undermine Palestinian trust in Israel’s intentions.”

Olmert’s announcement regarding the settlement freeze, explicit as it was, did not break new ground. The prime minister reiterated the Israeli government’s commitment under the road map not to build new settlements and not to expropriate new lands, but he did not touch on the issue of halting building projects within existing settlements. Palestinian officials greeted Olmert’s declaration with skepticism.

“Either it’s a 100% settlement freeze or no settlement freeze,” senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. “There is nothing in the middle.”

Distant as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators may be on what constitutes a settlement freeze, for Israel and its supporters in United States the issue of settlements is far easier to tackle than the most contentious issues at the center of the conflict: borders, the status of Jerusalem and dealing with Palestinian refugees.

David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, said this week that it was Israeli hesitancy to dive into the core issues that led Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other administration officials to back off from the ambitious plans they had for the summit and set a more modest list of expectations.

“Olmert succeeded in convincing Rice not to take on the core issues,” Makovsky said.

Israel’s doubts about rushing into final-status talks were raised recently by the head of the Shin Bet General Security Services, Yuval Diskin, who told Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, he is worried that “the American and Palestinian timeline does not fit that of Israel’s security.” Sources told the Forward that in a meeting during Hadley’s visit to Israel last month, Diskin, who is in charge of Israel’s intelligence and counter-terrorism activity in the Palestinian territories, expressed concern about Washington’s wish to reach an agreement before President Bush leaves office.

American Jewish officials who have met with Rice in recent weeks echoed similar concerns.

“Many Jewish leaders talked to her about the need to lower expectations, and at the end the reality imposed itself on her, and she is now trying to adjust to the changing reality,” an official with a Jewish organization said of a meeting that several leaders held with Rice earlier this month.

As the administration made it increasingly clear that next week’s peace summit would not tackle the conflict’s core issues and would be used only to bolster Abbas and Olmert, concern about the conference has ebbed among Jewish groups. While most mainstream groups are still avoiding any public endorsement of the talks, they are also steering clear of any actions that might be seen as opposing the restarting of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

“We understand,” a Jewish official in Washington said, “that Israel and the U.S. share a willingness to make this conference a success.”

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