Israeli PM predicts more West Bank homes will be built


DESPITE INTERNATIONAL condemnation of Israeli plans to approve more West Bank settlement construction, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday predicted that a compromise will be reached with the US this week on the issue.

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell will hold talks later this week in Jerusalem and it looks as if he will accept as a fait accompli Jerusalem’s announcement that Mr Netanyahu will give the green light for the building of a few hundred more West Bank units, before he agrees to the US package deal which calls for an Israeli moratorium on new settlement construction.

Settler leaders have condemned the prime minister’s plan as falling short of the thousands of new homes they claim are needed in West Bank communities. But the surprise move by the prime minister succeeded in ending the rising protests among right-wing coalition partners and members of Mr Netanyahu’s own Likud party, who were concerned over the prospect of Washington imposing a building freeze on Israel.

Israeli officials say Washington knew in advance about the prime minister’s intention to approve a few hundred more West Bank homes before agreeing to a settlement freeze of 6-12 months.

Israeli officials are not using the words “moratorium” or “freeze”, preferring instead to use the phrase “reducing the scale of construction”. Interior minister Eli Yishai said Mr Netanyahu’s plan amounted to merely “a strategic delay” in settlement construction.

Secretary-general of the anti-settlement group Peace Now, Yariv Oppenheimer, said “on the ground not only are the settlements being expanded, but new ones are being built”. The Palestinian leadership, backed by Washington, had originally insisted on a total construction freeze as a condition for renewing bilateral peace talks, suspended since the Netanyahu government came to power in March.

Meanwhile, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt has cancelled a scheduled trip this week to Israel.

Bilateral relations have been under strain after Swedish government officials refused to condemn an article in the Stockholm newspaper Aftonbladet which claimed Israeli troops had killed Palestinians in order to sell their organs.

Mr Netanyahu compared the article to a medieval anti-Semitic blood libel, but Swedish officials stressed importance of freedom of the press. Stockholm denied a direct link between the sudden cancellation of Mr Bildt’s visit and the row over the article, citing “logistical reasons” and “the situation in the peace process”.