On the eve of crucial talks with the White House over halting its ongoing takeover of the occupied West Bank, Israel's defence ministry yesterday confirmed plans for a massive expansion of a settlement near Ramallah.
The news will be seen as a major setback to US efforts to stop the growth of illegal settlements, and as a calculated snub to the Obama administration by Benjamin Netanyahu's government. It came as the Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, flew to Washington in an attempt to reach a compromise with the American special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell. The US, which has often turned a blind eye towards the activity of Jewish settlers in the past, now says the building must stop to enable a viable Palestinian state to emerge alongside Israel through negotiations.
The planned expansion to the north-east of Jersualem was acknowledged in an affidavit submitted to the supreme court by Mr Barak. The document outlines plans by the government to relocate about 50 hard-line settler families from the unauthorised outpost of Migron to the Adam settlement, 3km away.
The document says a master plan has been drawn up calling for the construction of 1,450 new units at Adam, a huge number in West Bank terms, although it is expected to take several years to work its way through the approvals process. The ministry said it had given the green light only for the 50 dwellings and any additional units would require its separate approval.
The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, speaking in Ramallah yesterday, said the Palestinian Authority would stick to its refusal to resume negotiations with Israel unless there was freeze on the construction of settlements. His leading negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said of the Adam expansion: "The Israelis are determined to undermine the two-state solution. When the whole international community is speaking in one voice on the need to stop settlement activities they answer with this."
The expansion of Adam is part of a deal struck by the government with the Yesha Council that represents most settlers. The stated goal is to enable a non-violent evacuation of Migron, one of dozens of hard-core settler outposts in the West Bank that were never authorised by the government but have enjoyed its tacit and, at times, open support for years. With Mr Obama in power, Israel is under pressure to finally make good on a commitment in the 2003 peace "road map" to freeze settlements and evacuate the outposts.
In Migron, the pro-Palestinian lobby group Peace Now has petitioned the supreme court to evict settlers who are squatting on what the government concedes is privately owned Palestinian property. The government has resisted doing so and now appears intent on using the perceived need to placate potentially violent settlers as justification for expanding the more established settlements. Eitan Broshi, an adviser to Mr Barak, indicated yesterday that the government's policy was to enable outpost settlers "to enter nearby settlements" so that "violent removal and bloodshed" can be avoided. He said the Americans would understand this policy. They "know what an evacuation entails and what challenges face us. They know that we have to undertake complicated internal processes".
However, Yossi Alpher, a leading Israeli political analyst, said the plan was a scandal. "This runs totally counter to the spirit of the current discussions on the settlement freeze," added Mr Alpher, a former director of the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies.
Israel has said it must be able to continue with building in the settlements, so that "natural growth" can continue and young couples can move into bigger flats. But Mr Alpher believes that, in the face of opposition from a determined Obama administration, Israel would be forced to drop its "natural growth" demand.