Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, warned Israel yesterday that continuing to build settlements in the occupied territories risked undermining the peace process with the Palestinians.
Ms Rice's criticism of the Israeli government came as the monitoring group Peace Now revealed that building in the West Bank had doubled from 240 in the same period in 2007 to 443 this year. "Construction in the settlements has increased by a factor of 1.8 by comparison to the same period last year," the group said in a report based on government statistics.
At a press conference with Israeli Foreign Minister, and future candidate for the premiership, Tzipi Livni, Secretary Rice said "I think it's no secret, and I have said it to my Israeli counterparts, that I don't think that settlement activity is helpful. In fact, what we need now are steps that enhance confidence between the parties and anything that undermines confidence between the parties ought to be avoided".
The American sponsored "road map", which the Bush administration hopes will lead to a peace deal by the start of next year calls on Israel to halt adding to the settlements in the West Bank in return for the Palestinians stopping attacks on Israel.
Israel holds that it has the right to keep building within the boundaries of existing settlements which it intends to keep under any peace accord in the future. Ms Livni insisted yesterday that Israeli settlement activity had been reduced "in the most dramatic way,". especially in areas east of the 'security wall' that Israel is constructing in the West Bank - an enterprise bitterly attacked by the Palestinians as restricting their movement and taking over more land.
Ms Livni claimed the Palestinians had used settlement building "as an excuse" to avoid negotiations, adding however, that she understood "their frustration" at times.The Peace Now report states that a thousand new buildings containing some 2,600 homes, were currently under construction in the settlements. Israeli settlements on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, which marks the edge of the West Bank, are considered illegal under international law . This is disputed by Israel.
The report stated that, in recent years, the trend had "accelerated" to "eliminate the Green Line" through intensive construction aimed at creating a "territorial connection" reaching into "the heart of the West Bank". The group also said the number of tenders for construction projects in East Jerusalem had increased 38-fold to 1,761 in the period since Annapolis, compared with just 46 in the first 11 months of 2007.
On her seventh visit this year to Israel and Palestinian, breaking off from the ongoing crisis in Georgia, Ms Rice maintained that the the two sides were "somewhat closer" in their secret talks despite deepening public scepticism about the chances of ending the conflict which has now lasted for six decades. "I believe that the parties have succeeded in moving their understandings of what needs to be achieved, and indeed their positions, somewhat closer together" she said.
However, the prospect of a meaningful agreement seem increasingly unlikely with George W Bush about to leave office, Israeli premier Ehud Olmert due to step down with the prospect of facing criminal charges for alleged corruption and Mr Abbas under intense pressure among rank and file Palestinians from Hamas.
After holding talks with Ms Livni and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qorei, who heads the Palestinian negotiating team, Ms Rice traveled Ramallah in the West Bank to meet Mr Abbas.