- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2008

TEL AVIV | Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered a polite but stern rebuke to Israel Sunday over new construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank - the most pointed public criticism of the U.S. ally by the Bush administration in recent memory.

“It’s important to have an atmosphere of trust and confidence,” Miss Rice told reporters. “Unfortunately I do believe, and the United States believes, that the announcements taking place are having a negative effect on talks.”

Just last week, Israel approved construction of more than 1,000 housing units in East Jerusalem, an area where Palestinians hope to establish their capital.

Miss Rice is visiting at a time when officials and analysts are increasingly doubtful whether Israelis and the Palestinians will reach a peace agreement by the end of 2008, the deadline set by President Bush.

With Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert fighting to keep his job during a police corruption investigation, many have questioned whether he has the moral authority or political capital to sign any peace deals.

A public opinion poll also showed that Israeli support for the U.S.-led “road map” peace plan backed by Mr. Bush has dropped below 50 percent for the first time since 2003.

In addition, the militant Islamist group Hamas’ control of the Gaza Strip limits Palestinian Authority negotiators because Hamas continues to advocate the destruction of Israel.

Since Mr. Bush convened Arab and Israeli leaders in Annapolis last year to inaugurate the renewed peace talks, Israel has moved forward on nearly 8,000 housing units in areas of Jerusalem claimed by Palestinians as their future capital.

The construction activity hurts the credibility of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the eyes of his own people because it makes it increasingly difficult to imagine the contours of a Palestinian state.

At a joint press conference with Miss Rice at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah, Mr. Abbas called the settlements “the biggest obstacle” to the political negotiations.

While some politicians on the Israeli right called Miss Rice’s comments a rude intervention into domestic politics, anti-settlement activists doubted that the U.S. would follow up the statement with any real pressure on Israel.

“The statement might be serious, but the question is what Israeli policy-makers will make of it,” said Dror Etkes, a settlement observer who works for the nonprofit group Yesh Din. “They had 7 1/2 years to pressure Israel on settlements. I don´t think they’re going to do it in the next half year.”

Israel’s official position on the settlement growth is that it will not establish any new towns in the West Bank and that building in existing settlements should be within current settlement boundaries. About a quarter-million Israelis are living amid 2.3 million Palestinians in the West Bank.

Another 180,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem, an area of the city annexed after the 1967 Six-Day War. Because Israel regards all of Jerusalem as part of its sovereign territory, it says it will continue to build there regardless of international pressure.

“The probability that Israel and the Palestinian Authority will reach an agreement by the end of the year is very low,” said Shlomo Brom, a fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, “and the probability such an agreement will be implemented if it is reached is even lower.”

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