- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 19, 2009

TEL AVIV — Israeli settlers prepared to build the first new settlement in a quarter century Monday as President Obama told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop building Jewish homes on Palestinian land.

A settler spokesman said a tender was issued last week for 20 permanent homes at Maskiyot, a settlement of temporary mobile homes in the strategically sensitive Jordan Valley - a plan that was frozen three years ago because of U.S. opposition.

“There is full consensus among Zionist parties that the Jordan Valley must remain under Israeli control within the framework of any diplomatic deal,” said David Elhayani, the head of Jordan Valley regional council, Reuters news agency reported. “The Jordan Valley is necessary for the sake of national security, and woe to the administration that strays from this path.”

Surveyors visited Maskiyot on Monday, according to news reports. Mr. Elhayani told Reuters it will take several weeks to complete the tender process before building begins.

The Jordan Valley settlement council wants Maskiyot to become the new home for a group of settlers evacuated from the Gaza Strip in 2005. But that would reinvigorate a settlement that has attracted no permanent residents since it was first approved by the government in 1982.

Though the Israelis can argue that the Maskiyot settlement has always existed on the map, the international community sees it as a de facto violation of the long-standing commitment by Israel not to construct new settlements.

“Its a trial balloon,” said Dror Etkes, a spokesman for Yesh Din, an Israel nonprofit that monitors illegal settlement activity in the West Bank. “Three years ago, they floated it, and the Americans reacted harshly. Now they’re trying it again.”

Israel has always insisted that it has the right to build in existing settlements to accommodate what it calls “natural growth.”

Mr. Etkes said that building activity has accelerated throughout the West Bank at approximately two dozen sites. Construction includes new roads, new neighborhoods and the clearing of new agricultural land.

Mr. Obama said Monday after his meeting with Mr. Netanyahu that “settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward” on peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr. Etkes and others speculated that the decision to prepare to build at Maskiyot just as the White House summit was taking place was not coordinated with Mr. Netanyahu.

In the past, Israeli leaders such as former Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir approved new construction before talks with top U.S. officials.

“I am afraid there was no coordination, or timing with the visit,” said Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union, in a conference call sponsored by the Israel Policy Forum, a group that advocates a major U.S. role in promoting Arab-Israeli peace. “There are long-standing plans. I don’t read any political message in this case.”

The Palestinians complain that continued settlement activity by Israel makes a sovereign state of their own increasingly not viable. Currently, there are about 300,000 settlers in the West Bank and another 200,000 Israeli Jews in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem.

If Mr. Netanyahu were to try to evacuate settlements in the West Bank, however, he would face stiff opposition from his Likud party as well as far right members of his coalition.

“This coalition wouldn’t hang together for 10 minutes if Netanyahu tried to close down any settlements,” said former U.S. ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis on the same conference call.

• Joshua Mitnick can be reached at 125854@example.com.

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