Israel and the United States appear headed for a clash over the expansion of a major Jewish settlement near Jerusalem, even as a top aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insisted yesterday that President Bush had endorsed the idea.
Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, briefing reporters ahead of Mr. Sharon’s U.S. visit next week, said Israel was relying on Mr. Bush’s written pledge last April that “demographic realities” such as Israel’s substantial West Bank settlements must be a factor when drawing the borders of a promised Palestinian state.
“It is crystal clear and it is simple,” said Mr. Olmert, a leading strategist of Mr. Sharon’s ruling Likud Party. ?When President Bush makes a commitment, for us that is enough.”
But White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday the administration “opposes the expansion of any settlement activity.”
“That has been our view and remains our view,” he said, adding the Mr. Bush will raise the issue of the planned 3,500-unit Ma’aleh Adumim project outside Jerusalem when he hosts Mr. Sharon at his Crawford, Texas, ranch Monday.
Mr. Sharon is attempting a politically risky balancing act, insisting on Israel’s right to proceed with the Ma’aleh Adumim expansion even as he prepares the forced evacuation of 25 other settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip starting in July.
The prime minister told lawmakers in Israel yesterday that the expansion is needed to link the huge settlement to the rest of Jerusalem.
“I don’t see construction in the area as a serious problem,” he insisted.
Jewish settler groups have denounced the eviction, and Palestinian leaders accuse Mr. Sharon of giving up the sparsely populated Gaza sites to bolster Israel’s claims on Jerusalem and the West Bank, where more than 90 percent of the Jewish settlers live.
Mr. Olmert brushed aside the U.S.-backed “road map” for an Israel-Palestinian peace deal, which calls in part for a halt to Jewish settlement activity.
He also dismissed comments by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that projects such as Ma’aleh Adumim should come to a “full stop.” He said Israel again was relying on Mr. Bush’s promise that Israel would not be expected to give up sensitive, populous areas east of Jerusalem.
Polls show support for Likud slipping since Mr. Sharon, a longtime supporter of the settlement policy, announced the pullout plan.
Lewis Roth, assistant executive director for Americans for Peace Now, which opposes expansion of the settlements, said Mr. Sharon and Mr. Bush probably will clash over the Israeli plans at Crawford, but will try to keep the disagreements behind closed doors.
Mr. Olmert said fears of settler violence were rising as the July evacuation date neared, but that growing numbers of settlers appeared resigned to relocating.
“I personally believe that, at the end of the day, violence will be prevented,” he said.