- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2008

JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in an unprecedented public acknowledgment, yesterday called continued Israeli construction in West Bank settlements a breach of Israel’s obligations under a recently revived peace plan.

Mr. Olmert’s remarks, which appeared in the Jerusalem Post newspaper, came just days before President Bush arrives in the region to build on the momentum created at the recent Mideast peace conference in Annapolis.

Mr. Bush, in a separate interview, urged Israel to uphold its commitment to remove the settlement outposts in the West Bank.

“The Israeli government announced that it plans to get rid of the unauthorized outposts, and that’s what we expect them to do. We expect the Israeli government to honor its commitments,” Mr. Bush told the daily Yediot Ahronot in the interview, published yesterday in Hebrew.

Israel has long maintained it has the right to continue building in existing settlements to account for ill-defined “natural growth” of the existing population — something the peace plan explicitly bans. But in his interview with the Jerusalem Post, Mr. Olmert acknowledged that Israel was not honoring its commitments.

“There is a certain contradiction in this between what we’re actually seeing and what we ourselves promised,” Mr. Olmert said.

“Obligations are not only to be demanded of others, but they must also be honored by ourselves. So there is a certain problem here,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.

The comments build on Mr. Olmert’s recent efforts to defuse friction over construction in disputed territories. Construction plans announced after the Annapolis conference have antagonized the Palestinians and disrupted fledgling peace talks, renewed after seven years of still-simmering violence.

Mr. Olmert added, however, that Israel thinks a Bush letter to the Israeli government in 2004 “renders flexible to a degree what is written in the road map.”

In that letter, Mr. Bush wrote that “existing Israeli population centers” should be taken into consideration when the final borders of a Palestinian state are drawn. Israel interprets this to mean it can hold on to major West Bank settlements blocs, where the majority of its 270,000 settlers live, and where much of the contentious construction is going on.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat welcomed Mr. Olmert’s remarks. When both sides admit they are not carrying out all their obligations, that “should be the way for both of us to carry out our obligations,” he said.

In a related development, an Olmert confidant said Israel might soon begin dismantling some of the more than 100 unauthorized outposts settlers have erected — another peace-plan obligation.

“I hope and also believe that in the near future, during the U.S. president’s visit to Israel and afterwards, real steps will be taken to remove those outposts,” Vice Prime Minister Haim Ramon told Israel Radio.

Israel has stepped up efforts to make peace with the moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ever since the Islamic Hamas routed Mr. Abbas’ Fatah forces and took over Gaza in June. Israel has demanded that Mr. Abbas crack down on militants, while carrying out its own operations against extremists in the West Bank and Gaza.

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