- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Bush administration officials said yesterday that the United States and Israel disagree over a key clause in last year’s “road map” peace plan — an Israeli pledge to freeze Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The dispute was prompted by a new Israeli initiative to build 1,000 new houses for Jewish settlers.

“There are differences on what the commitments were,” a senior State Department official said, referring to Israel’s pledge.

“It’s important to have clarity of views on what was agreed to,” the official said. “Before we say anything publicly, we want to clarify it privately. Discussions to arrive at clarity of views are still continuing.”

Washington’s only official response to the plan, which was leaked by senior aides of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Tuesday, has been to restate Israel’s obligations under the road map and to say the administration is studying the proposal.

“We have a commitment from the government of Israel to the road map,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters. “We are discussing these issues, as well as others, in the context of taking those steps and trying to make progress between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Mr. Ereli said on Tuesday that the freeze includes halt to “natural growth” — an expansion of existing settlements to accommodate population increases among Jewish families living in the West Bank.

But a senior Israeli diplomat disagreed. “Natural growth has always been part of our policy,” the diplomat said.

Mr. Sharon’s plan to build new houses for settlers was leaked on the eve of a vote by the ruling Likud party on whether to invite the opposition Labor Party to join the government.

The prime minister needed the support of hard-line nationalists, many of whom are angry about Mr. Sharon’s plan to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

In the end, Mr. Sharon was not able to shore up enough votes, and his proposal for a coalition with Labor was defeated yesterday.

Israel accepted the road map after long negotiations with the United States, which sponsored the plan along with the United Nations, Russia and the European Union. The plan sets out a number of conditions that would lead to a Palestinian state as early as 2005.

The road map won a public endorsement from President Bush at the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, Jordan, in May 2003.

In recent months, Mr. Sharon has moved away from the road map and adopted a plan to unilaterally withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

He argues that those steps are the only solution, because he cannot trust Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to stop terror attacks on Israel.

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