- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2005

TEL AVIV — U.S. and Israeli officials scrambled during the weekend to clarify their policies on Israeli settlements after a newspaper on Friday quoted U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer as saying the Bush administration would not necessarily support Israel’s annexation of large West Bank settlements.

Both Mr. Kurtzer and Israeli Foreign Ministry officials denied the accuracy of the account in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, which was based on an appearance by the ambassador before a group of Israeli foreign service cadets.

Speaking to his Cabinet yesterday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said there was a “clear understanding” with the United States about the future of West Bank settlement blocks, though he acknowledged that Israel’s staunchest ally remains opposed to the expansion of Jewish communities in lands captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The U.S. ambassador and embassy officials referred to a letter from President Bush published in April supporting Israel’s retention of large settlement blocks as part of a peace accord with the Palestinians.

“The president’s letter of April of last year is the definitive policy, and that hasn’t changed,” said embassy spokesman Paul Patin, summarizing the ambassador’s clarification.

Israeli officials last week announced plans to build 3,500 housing units in Ma’aleh Adumim, a suburb in what had been Palestinian territory a few miles east of Jerusalem. The project would create a corridor linking Ma’aleh Adumim to Jerusalem, but Palestinians complained it would compromise the territorial contiguity of their future state.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seemed to back the Palestinians last week when she told the Los Angeles Times that the project would run against U.S. policy.

Israeli officials said yesterday that Washington agreed Ma’aleh Adumim would remain under Israeli control in a final settlement with the Palestinians, and that Israel hoped building could go ahead even before a peace treaty was reached.

“We’ll keep talking with the Americans on this issue, and we hope it’s possible to reach common ground,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. “From our view as Israelis, we see Ma’aleh Adumim as part of Israel.”

Mr. Bush responded to Mr. Sharon’s commitment to evacuate settlements in the Gaza Strip and West Bank by publishing a letter last year saying a final peace settlement with the Palestinians would have to account for the major population centers built in the West Bank in the past four decades.

Palestinians oppose allowing Israel to retain control over any Jewish communities in the West Bank, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday that building in the settlements would prejudice a final peace deal.

“Any talk about settlements other than about stopping the activity is unacceptable. This will affect the final-status issue,” Agence France-Presse quoted Mr. Abbas as saying. “Settlements are illegal from start to finish.”

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