Obama Again Calls for Halt to Israeli Settlement Activity
By Glenn Kessler
President Obama continued to press his administration's tough stance on Jewish settlements on the West Bank, telling reporters after a meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas this afternoon that Israel must halt all settlement activity in order to build momentum for peace.
Obama, who last week met with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, said "in my conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I was very clear about the need to stop settlements, to make sure that we are stopping the building of outposts ... to alleviate some of the pressures that the Palestinian people are under in terms of travel and commerce."
Obama noted that Palestinians also must improve security as part of their commitments under the 2003 "road map" peace plan, though he added the Palestinian Authority already had made "great progress" with the assistance of a U.S. general.
The road map plans commits Israel to dismantle settler outposts and freeze "all settlement activity," including what is know as "natural growth." But the near-daily barrage of U.S. demands that Israel halt settlement growth has surprised Israeli officials who argue that they greatly restrained growth under an unwritten 2005 agreement with the Bush administration. Under that deal, Israel was to stop providing incentives for settlers to move to the West Bank and built only in areas it expected to keep in future peace agreements.
But the continued growth even in those settlements -- and an unwillingness by various Israeli governments to dismantle outposts -- has left the impression in the Arab world that Israel would not agree to a peace deal. The Obama administration appears to have calculated that pressing Israel on settlements will help demonstrate to the Arab world that the U.S. is serious about pursuing peace, even at the risk of appearing to undermine Netanyahu's nascent government.
"Time is of the essence," Obama said. "We can't continue with the drift, with the increased fear and resentments on both sides, of the sense of hopelessness around the situation that we've seen for many years now. We need to get this thing back on track."
Netanyahu's coalition of mostly right-wing parties has erupted in anger at the demand to halt settlements. Israeli media has reported that he is trying to craft a compromise in which he would move forcefully against the illegal outposts, telling members of Parliament that it was the only way to win U.S. help on countering Iran's nuclear program.
Netanyahu has been a long-time skeptic of proposals to create a Palestinian state, and refused to commit to the concept during his visit to the United States.
By contrast, his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, pressed hard to strike a deal with Abbas. Last November, he offered to withdraw from 90 percent of the West Bank, while swapping 6.5 percent of the West Bank for 5.8 percent of the territory of Israel and establishing a corridor linking the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, according to an account recently given by chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat to Agence-France Press. Holy places in Jerusalem would have shared sovereignty under that plan.
Abbas did not take the deal because Olmert did not answer questions about water and the treatment of refugees, Erekat said.
CBKEarlier Thursday, Abed al-Majid Dudin, a longtime Hamas leader accused of plotting fatal attacks in Israel, was killed during an exchange of gunfire after Israeli forces surrounded his West Bank home, an Israeli military official said.
A spokesman for Hamas -- which considered a terrorist group by the United States and Israel -- confirmed that Dudin was a commander in its armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Dudin's death "inflames the situation all over again," the Hamas official said, after months of relative quiet following Israel's military operation in Gaza last winter.
Correspondent Howard Schneider in Amman, Jordan contributed to this report.
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