Israel 'deviating from road map'

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The Independent Online

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in an unprecedented public acknowledgement yesterday, called continued Israeli construction in West Bank settlements a breach of Israel's obligations under a recently revived peace plan.

Olmert's remarks, which appeared in The Jerusalem Post daily, came just days before US President George W. Bush arrives in the region to build on the momentum created at a recent Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland. They fell short of the Palestinians' demand for a total freeze on settlement construction but were significant because Israel has never openly admitted before that it wasn't living up to the internationally backed "road map" peace plan.

His comments also built on his recent efforts to defuse frictions over construction in disputed territories. Construction plans announced after the Annapolis conference have antagonized the Palestinians and disrupted fledgling peace talks, renewed after seven years of still-simmering violence.

The two sides have agreed that the foundation for any accord would be the road map, which was to have led to the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005, but languished shortly after it was presented in June 2003 because neither side met initial obligations. Israel was to have halted West Bank settlement construction and the Palestinians were to have clamped down on militants.

Israel has long maintained it has the right to continue building in existing settlements to account for ill-defined "natural growth" of the existing population something the "road map" explicitly bans. But Olmert told The Jerusalem Post that Israel wasn't honoring its commitments.

"There is a certain contradiction in this between what we're actually seeing and what we ourselves promised," Olmert said.

"Obligations are not only to be demanded of others, but they must also be honored by ourselves. So there is a certain problem here," the newspaper quoted him as saying.

Olmert added, however, that Israel believes a Bush letter to the Israeli government in 2004 "renders flexible to a degree what is written in the road map." In that letter, Bush wrote that "existing Israeli population centers" should be taken into consideration when the final borders of a Palestinian state are drawn. Israel interprets this to mean it can hold on to major West Bank settlements blocs, where the majority of its 270,000 settlers live, and where much of the contentious construction is going on.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat welcomed Olmert's remarks. When both sides admit they aren't carrying out all their obligations, that "should be the way for both of us to carry out our obligations," Erekat said.

Settlement construction has been a key obstacle to past peace talks, and after the recent construction plans announced by lower-level bureaucrats stymied the recently renewed negotiations, Olmert ordered last week that all new construction receive his approval. He did not halt construction in progress.

In related news, an Olmert confidant said Israel might soon begin dismantling some of the more than 100 unauthorized outposts settlers have erected another road map obligation.

"I hope and also believe that in the near future, during the US president's visit to Israel and afterwards, real steps will be taken to remove those outposts," Vice Premier Haim Ramon told Israel Radio.

Settlers have set up the outposts most tiny encampments in an effort to break up territory Palestinians claim for a future state. The road map obliges Israel to take down about two dozen erected after Ariel Sharon became prime minister in March 2001.

In an interview with Israel's Yediot Ahronot newspaper, published Friday, Bush said he expected Israel to "honor its commitments" with regard to the outposts.

"The Israeli government announced that it plans to get rid of the unauthorized outposts, and that's what we expect them to do," he said.

Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip for their future state. Israel captured all three territories in the 1967 Mideast war. It immediately annexed east Jerusalem but evacuated Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation.

Israel has stepped up efforts to make peace with the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, ever since the Islamic Hamas routed Abbas' Fatah forces and took over Gaza in June. At Annapolis, both sides set a December 2008 target the end of Bush's tenure for reaching a final deal.

Israel has demanded that Abbas crack down on militants, while carrying out its own operations against extremists in the West Bank and Gaza. Abbas has introduced a security plan for West Bank, but has no influence in Gaza.

Two Hamas gunmen were shot and killed by Israeli troops along Gaza's border with Israel before dawn Friday. That brought to 11 the number of Palestinians killed since Thursday, when militants struck a major Israeli town with a more powerful rocket than they usually fire.

On Friday, militants fired three mortar shells and one rocket from Gaza, the military said. No injuries were reported, but one house was damaged.

Israel also kept up a military operation in the West Bank town of Nablus that has injured 35 people and confined 150,000 residents to their homes under a curfew for three days.

Nablus, a center of militant activity, is a test case of Abbas' ability to impose law and order in the West Bank, and a beefed-up Palestinian security contingent has been deployed there. But Israeli troops entered Nablus on Wednesday after discovering a militant weapons lab there, the military said.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad denounced the Israeli operation.

"These Israeli aggressions have a very negative influence on the efforts to revive the peace process," a statement from his office read.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Israel could not relinquish security responsibilities to the Palestinians because they were not ready.

"At the moment, it is clear that much, much work still has to be done to rebuild and reform Palestinian security," Regev said.