Israel angers US with plan for new settlements

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, says 300 more homes for Jewish settlers are to be built at Efrat, on the West Bank. Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem says the announcement demonstrates Israel's willingness to ignore US requests for a `time-out' on new settlements.
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The Independent Online
In the two weeks since Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, asked for a temporary halt to new Israeli settlements, Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to two: in Ras al-Amoud, east Jerusalem, and at Efrat, near Bethlehem. Announcing the 300 homes, the Israeli Prime Minister said anybody with a pair of binoculars could see that "we are building in Judaea and Samaria [the Israeli names for the West Bank]".

Mrs Albright said she did not regard this kind of building as "consistent with the kind of climate for negotiation that she hoped to create, that would be most likely to yield progress in a political negotiation". But the Israeli leader has clearly calculated that, given the backing he enjoys in the US Congress, President Bill Clinton will not pick a fight with him over settlements.

Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency, has been warning that another suicide bomb attack may be imminent. A poll by the Centre for Palestinian Research and Studies indicates that the percentage of Palestinians who approve of suicide bomb attacks has risen from 21 per cent in February to 36 per cent today, although 56 per cent remain opposed to such attacks. In Jerusalem, customers are keeping away from obvious targets, including the main shopping street.

Mr Netanyahu's announcement of more houses for settlers at Efrat came just as fresh discussions were beginning between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Washington. The Prime Minister had apparently talked on the phone to Mrs Albright earlier in the day, though he had not mentioned Efrat.

Yesterday Moshe Fogel, the government spokesman, called a press briefing to explain that all the government planned at Efrat was "contiguous growth" of the existing settlement.

"The government is not searching for friction. It is not looking for a land-grab," he said.

While Israeli says settlement expansion is only "natural growth", the 1.5 million Palestinians on the West Bank find it almost impossible to obtain permits to build houses outside their villages and towns, whose boundaries were laid down by the British Mandate authorities in 1942.

In a survey of the prospects for peace, Martin Indyk, the departing US ambassador, said Israel was "lurching from crisis to crisis". He said the diplomatic window of opportunity for a final peace agreement in the Middle East, which had opened with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf war, was closing.

Mr Indyk, who becomes head of the State Department's Near East Affairs bureau, said in May that peace for land, the "core bargain" of the Oslo accords, had broken down.