- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2008

JERUSALEM (AP) | A key committee has approved construction of the first new Jewish settlement in the West Bank in a decade, an Israeli official said Thursday. The news infuriated Palestinians, who said the decision could cripple peace efforts.

The only hurdle that remains is Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who plans to approve the Maskiot settlement within weeks, the official said. Mr. Barak had signaled to the national planning committee that it should authorize the plan, the official said.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Defense Ministry did not officially announce the settlement would be built in the Jordan Valley Rift, an arid north-south strip that forms Israel’s eastern flank with Jordan.

Asked why Israel was moving ahead with the politically charged plan, the official said it has been in the pipeline for years.

Israel originally announced in 2006 that it would build Maskiot, then froze the plan after international outcry. But earlier this year, nine Israeli families settled in mobile homes at the site, which Palestinians claim as part of a future state.

A number of Israeli politicians, however, have said Israel needs to retain control of the Jordan Valley as a buffer between a future Palestinian state and Jordan. The issue remains to be resolved in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Settlers say about two dozen more families are waiting to join them.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused Israel of undermining U.S.-backed peace talks.

“This is destroying the process of a two-state solution,” Mr. Erekat said. “I hope the Americans will make the Israelis revoke the decision. I think they can make the Israelis do this.”

The U.S. Embassy had no comment. But on her last visit to the region, in June, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said settlement building “has the potential to harm the negotiations.”

When talks renewed last year after a seven-year breakdown, Israel promised not to establish new settlements in the West Bank. The two sides set a goal of reaching a final peace accord by the end of the year, but have since scaled back their ambitions, in part because disputes over Israeli settlement have impeded progress toward peace.

Palestinians want the final deal to outline the formation of a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Israel captured those territories in the 1967 Mideast War.

Asked to comment on the revival of the plan to build Maskiot, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said, “Israel will stand by its commitments,” and noted Mr. Barak has not yet given final approval for the construction.

He would not elaborate. But Israel historically has interpreted its commitments on halting settlement expansion differently from the rest of the international community.

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