Israel Plans to Expand Efrat As U.S. Still Calls for ‘timeout’

Israeli approval of plans to expand the West Bank settlement of Efrat has roiled the U.S. administration just as it is striving to get Israel and the Palestinians back on a negotiating track.

Plans to construct several hundred more homes in the large settlement undermines confidence and does not “create the environment required for successful negotiations,” James Rubin, State Department spokesman, said in Washington.

The news came as U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross continued his bid to advance peacemaking efforts between Israel and the Palestinians in advance of meetings with President Clinton later this month.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is slated to meet with Clinton in Washington on Jan. 20. Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat is scheduled for a separate meeting that same week.

Rubin, who did not distinguish between the expansion of existing settlements and new settlement development, said Ross is discussing the specifics of an Israeli “timeout” on settlement building in his meetings with Netanyahu and Arafat.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu said this week that the Cabinet would decide on the scope of a further redeployment from the West Bank before he leaves for Washington this month — but that a final decision on implementing it would be put off for several months.

Israel has been facing American and Palestinian demands to come up with a “credible” proposal for the second stage of a further troop redeployment.

Netanyahu, speaking to coalition leaders, said any decision to actually implement a redeployment plan would depend on Palestinian fulfillment of its commitments.

Netanyahu also sparked concern among U.S. officials with reports that he intends to condition implementation of a second redeployment on canceling a third withdrawal. The Israeli premier reportedly advocates going to final- status negotiations instead.

Netanyahu convened coalition representatives Thursday to coordinate political matters in the wake of David Levy’s resignation as foreign minister and the withdrawal of his five-member Gesher faction from the coalition.

Levy’s move prompted speculation that Netanyahu’s coalition, now with a 61-59 majority in the 120-seat Knesset, would be under even more pressure from right- wing and religious coalition partners opposed to territorial concessions in the West Bank.

However, in an address before an international conference of Jewish ministers and members of parliament earlier in the day, Netanyahu warned coalition members that refusing to make the decisions required by the peace process would ultimately mean ceding control to the left wing.

“If you want to stand still, that’s not what we were elected for, that’s not the mandate we received,” Netanyahu said. “In my judgment, standing still would eventually mean the passing of the government powers to the left,” who will go back to the pre-1967 boundaries.

The question of Israel’s commitment to implementing the peace accords came up at the Fifth Annual Conference of Jewish Ministers and Members of Parliament.

Some 70 Jewish political figures from over 20 countries attended the gathering, sponsored by the Israeli Forum, in conjunction with the Foreign Ministry, the Knesset and assistance from the Jewish Agency for Israel.

During a meeting with members of the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee, two coalition members — committee chairman Uzi Landau of the Likud and Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party — termed the Oslo accords “a disaster.”

At which point one of the participants, U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass), questioned how Israel’s supporters in the U.S. Congress could counter pressure against Israel when the Israeli government itself believes the process is “a disaster.”

Landau responded, saying that the government was obligated to honor its international commitment.

“If you have fallen into the Niagara Falls,” Landau said, “at least you better know how to swim.”

That exchange came amid reports that Netanyahu was seeking to meet with members of Congress when he is in Washington to solicit support against expected pressure from the administration.

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