New details emerged Sunday about Israeli plans to expand Jewish settler enclaves, as Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak prepared to head to Washington to ease friction with the Obama administration over settlement construction, Associated Press reported.
The Yediot Ahronot newspaper reported that Barak will propose freezing new construction for three months while allowing the completion of late-stage projects. Barak, who leaves for Washington on Monday, later released a statement saying that proposal had not been finalized.
The Obama administration has delivered an unequivocal message on settlement construction: It must stop, without exception, because the U.S. feels it hurts Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and Obama's efforts to mend fences with the Arab world.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu postponed his own meeting with Washington's top Mideast envoy last week to give his emissaries more time to try to bridge the gaps.
Netanyahu recently yielded to U.S. pressure to endorse Palestinian statehood, albeit with tough conditions, but he has stood firm on resisting a settlement freeze.
Hard-line parties in his coalition support settlement activity and could crumble if he makes concessions his governing partners oppose.
Barak's Labor Party is the moderate wing of the government, with longtime support of a Palestinian state and significant withdrawals in the West Bank. However, Labor has also backed continued settlement building.
Barak confirmed last week that he retroactively legalized 60 apartments built without government approval on Givat Habraicha, a hilltop about 500 yards from the authorized settlement of Talmon.
The construction was legalized nine months ago, before Netanyahu took power in late March, he said. But the plans to expand the outpost received a boost in April when public comment on them was solicited, a formal step in the planning process.
These homes are to be the nucleus of a neighborhood of 300 apartments that will in effect connect Givat Habraicha to Talmon, where some 2,500 settlers live. The Defense Ministry has not given final approval for the project, but odds appear stacked in its favor.
Barak also agreed to authorize construction of what was presented as a new neighborhood in an existing settlement.
Alon Cohen-Lifshitz of the Israeli watchdog group Bimkom said Sunday that two miles (three kilometers) separate the planned construction site and the existing settlement, and that no road connects the two.
Trying to mollify the U.S., Netanyahu has said he would not build new settlements and would limit construction to the boundaries of existing settlements.
The new construction plans belie those claims, said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
"It seems to me that this government of Israel is by deed and words defying President Obama's call to freeze settlement activity, including natural growth," he said.
"The continuation of such actions on the ground does really undermine all efforts being exerted to resurrect the peace process," Erekat said.
Defense Ministry officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Settlers began building settlement outposts in the early 1990s, in an effort to expand Jewish presence on territory the Palestinians claim for part of a future state.
They had no government sanction, but former Cabinet ministers, settler leaders and lawmakers have all confirmed the squatter camps went up with the full knowledge of the state.
Many are small, flimsy encampments, but others, like Givat Habraicha, are permanent structures built near government-sanctioned settlements, in effect extending their reach.
The U.S. and others view their removal as a first step toward a broader rollback of settlement expansion in the West Bank.