- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 18, 2004

A leaked Israeli plan to build 1,000 new Jewish settler homes in the West Bank yesterday sent Bush administration officials scrambling for a response in the sensitive period before November’s presidential election.

The leak, on the eve of a conference in which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party will vote on whether to form a broad coalition with the leftist Labor Party, angered both Palestinians and Labor members.

But the Bush administration was much more cautious, even though some officials said privately that construction of the homes would clearly violate the U.S.-sponsored “road map” peace plan, in which Israel agreed to a freeze of settlement activity.

At the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, spokesman Paul Patin said simply: “Israel has accepted the road map, and we expect it to abide by its commitments.”

In Washington, spokesman Adam Ereli said at a State Department briefing that he was “not in a position now to say that any specific action is a violation of commitments.”

“We’ve got to look at where these tenders are, what previous discussions were, what these tenders are for, what specific commitments were made,” he said, adding that a team of technical experts would visit Israel in the next few weeks to study the proposal.

Other U.S. officials, speaking privately, questioned the Israeli proposal’s seriousness, given its timing and the fact it was disclosed to reporters in Jerusalem by anonymous aides of Mr. Sharon.

The leak was widely seen as designed to shore up the support of hard-line nationalists within Likud — many of whom are angry over Mr. Sharon’s plan to withdraw from Gaza — ahead of today’s party conference.

“Frankly, we don’t know how serious this is, and if it’s something we need to get on a soapbox for,” a State Department official said.

After the initial leaks, Israeli Housing Minister Tzipi Livni confirmed the proposal and claimed to have “understandings” with Washington that new homes could be built within current settlement boundaries, as part of “natural growth.”

Mr. Ereli would not acknowledge any such understanding and said that “natural growth” was supposed to stop under the road map.

In a telephone interview, an Israeli official said the reference to “natural growth” being permitted by the road map was a matter of “interpretation,” and that “natural growth” has always been “part of our policy.”

He said the new plan had been discussed with U.S. officials, but the State Department official said he was not aware of any “pre-warning” from Israel.

Reuters news agency quoted an Israeli source as saying the Israeli plan could disappear as quickly as it appeared.

“Sharon is maneuvering to reinforce his flanks and get past Likud opponents of disengagement” from Gaza, the source said. “Sharon may only need these tenders for the next 24 hours, for the convention.

“Afterward, who knows, he could freeze them again. Anything is possible. It’s just internal politics. He is merely doing what he must to proceed to disengagement” from Gaza.

Reuters also quoted a diplomat from the so-called Quartet — road map sponsors the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union — as saying the Israelis “have wiggle room in the existing diplomatic context,” meaning that President Bush has limited options for dealing with Mr. Sharon during a tough American re-election campaign.

Asked whether he thought Mr. Sharon might have calculated that Mr. Bush would be worried about alienating Jewish voters if he opposed the plan, the Quartet official said: “I’ll leave the interpretation to you.”

The Washington Times reported yesterday that a new poll shows Mr. Bush trailing his Democratic opponent in the race, Sen. John Kerry, among Jewish voters by 53 percentage points.

Mr. Kerry leads Mr. Bush 75 percent to 22 percent, according to pollster Anna Greenberg, who conducted the poll for the National Jewish Democratic Council.

By comparison, Democratic candidate Al Gore and Sen. Joe Lieberman — the first Jewish candidate ever on a major-party presidential ticket — took 79 percent of Jewish votes in the 2000 election, according to exit polls.

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