Clinton Remarks Fuel Flap over West Bank Construction

The United States is preparing to unleash its diplomatic wrath against Israel if the government of Benjamin Netanyahu proceeds with plans to construct two roads through the West Bank.

At a news conference Tuesday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, President Clinton stopped short of condemning Israel, but put the Jewish state on notice that Washington is closely watching its construction plans.

“I don’t want to blame them for something they haven’t done yet,” Clinton said, pointing out that the construction has not been formally approved by the Prime Minister’s Office.

“We expect and believe that Israel will adhere to the agreements it has already made” and not “do anything inconsistent with the commitments made by the Israeli government before it,” Clinton said.

National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon this week ordered the construction of two new roads in the West Bank that would run through areas administered by the Palestinian Authority.

The two projects involve an expenditure of some $57 million.

One of the roads would link Atarot, north of Jerusalem, to the heart of the capital. The second would be an extension of the Trans-Samaria Highway.

Palestinian Authority officials were quick to condemn the proposed construction.

Under the accords signed by the previous Labor-led government, Israel and the Palestinian Authority had agreed not to take any steps that would change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

But as is the case with many provisions of the accords, Palestinians and Israelis maintain differing interpretations.

Former Housing Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer criticized the Trans-Samaria project, saying that it would divert funds that could be used to build essential traffic arteries in the jammed center of the country.

But he welcomed the Atarot road, saying that it was part of the construction program that he had developed for the previous government.

The Peace Now group objected to both projects, saying that they were politically motivated and could sabotage the peace process.

The flap over construction through Palestinian-controlled areas came as West Bank Jewish settlement leaders emerged from a meeting this week with Netanyahu expressing satisfaction that the new leadership would be more supportive of their interests than the previous Labor-led government.

During Monday’s meeting, the leadership of the Yesha Council, which represents settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, presented Netanyahu with three principle requests:

that new settlements be established;

that existing ones be expanded;

and that families be allowed to move into settlement homes and apartments that are currently empty.

Netanyahu made no commitments regarding his settlement policies during the meeting.

But settler leaders later said that they thought that it was clear that the Netanyahu government would not follow in the footsteps of the previous Labor government, which adopted a freeze on settlement building and purposely left some 3,000 homes and apartments empty to prevent settlement expansion.

“We haven’t had a meeting like this with a prime minister in four years,” said council spokesman Yechiel Leiter.

“The prime minister is enthusiastic about the things we have done in Judea and Samaria and is committed to the growth and development there.”

(JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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