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STEVEN ERLANGER | NY Times | September 4, 2006
JERUSALEM, Sept. 4 - Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert authorized construction bids today for another 690 homes in the occupied West Bank in the face of pro forma American criticism. The houses will be built in Maale Adumim and Betar Illit, two settlements near Jerusalem that the Israeli government says it intends to keep in any final agreement with the Palestinians. Mr. Olmert, whose Kadima party was elected on a promise to pull thousands of Israeli settlers out of the West Bank beyond the route of Israel's separation barrier, has been clear about keeping and expanding settlements inside the barrier, even though they are on land occupied in the 1967 war. The Construction and Housing Ministry published advertisements today seeking construction proposals for the largest settlement activity undertaken so far by this government, which has also promised President George W. Bush to pull down more than 20 illegal outposts created since March 2001, but has not done so. The Bush Administration's position is that Israel should not expand settlements in the West Bank, because it makes the process of a final settlement harder. In general, much of the world considers Israeli settlements in occupied territory, including East Jerusalem, to be illegal, which Israel disputes. Stewart Tuttle, the spokesman for the American Embassy in Israel, said today that "in general it's a principle of the road map -- a foundation to reach peace in the region -- that Israel not only remove illegal outposts but also not expand settlements in the West Bank.''The United States, Mr. Tuttle said, opposes "any actions that would prejudice final status negotiations, which would include the final borders of Israel and Palestine." But such criticism has had little effect on Israeli policy in the past and is not expected to matter in this case. In general, Israel says that it is not "expanding" settlements, but "thickening" them within existing built-up areas. A former United States ambassador here, Daniel Kurtzer, tried to get Israel to agree with the United States on mapping the existing built-up areas of current settlements in order to make it clear when settlements were being expanded, but Israel - which has detailed satellite maps of nearly every building in the West Bank -- regularly refused. The mayor of Maale Adumim, Benny Kashrial, said today that many other units are under construction. "In short, it is just a matter of completing construction within a town."
Maale Adumim has a population of some 31,615 and looks like a Jerusalem suburb. The construction in Betar Illit is intended to house haredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews. Yariv Oppenheimer, the director of the leftish lobby Peace Now, said: "Instead of dismantling outposts and freezing construction in the settlements, the Olmert government is constructing further units and plans to authorize tens of illegal outposts. All these actions are in contradiction of the Israeli commitment to the road map, and the commitment of the Labor and Kadima parties to their voters." Mr. Olmert also favors construction to connect Maale Adumim directly to Jerusalem by building in an area called E1. Due to intense American, European and Palestinian opposition, on the grounds that building up E1 would cut off East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, those plans are on hold. The tenders are being put forward when Mr. Olmert is under budget pressure. He has supported more military spending after the recent war in Lebanon and his coalition partner, Labor, supports more social spending and opposes cuts proposed by the Finance Ministry. Due to the sharp criticism of tuition hikes and cuts in child support, publication of the budget was delayed on today. Labor's leader, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, is being widely criticized for his performance and aides to Mr. Olmert believe that Labor is creating a crisis over the budget to try to restore some of its credibility as a left-leaning party. Mr. Olmert appeared before the parliament's committee on foreign policy and defense today for the first time since the war in Lebanon. He said that a war with Syria would be handled with full force. He also confirmed that his plan for another unilateral withdrawal from part of the occupied West Bank was being shelved for now as the government concentrated on rebuilding the north. "What I saw as right several months ago has changed now," Mr. Olmert said, according to an aide and Israel Radio. "At this moment, the issue of the realignment is not in the order of priorities as it was two months ago." Mr. Olmert, who has been squabbling with Israel's Comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, faces more difficulties. Mr. Lindenstrauss, a sort of national ombudsman, recommended today that a criminal investigation be opened into personnel appointments made by Mr. Olmert in the previous government of Ariel Sharon <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/s/ariel_sharon/index.html?inline=nyt-per>.
Israeli politicians regularly appoint political cronies to government jobs. Tzachi Hanegbi, a prominent Kadima legislator, left the government when he was indicted Aug. 16 on such charges.