Sharon allowing construction of 1,001 West Bank apartments

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM - The day before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faces sharp debate about his policies at his own Likud Party convention, his government made an effort to pacify his critics yesterday, issuing tenders for 1,001 new, government-subsidized apartments for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank.

The decision will annoy Washington, Western diplomats said. The so-called "road map" to peace, which Israel accepted, calls for a freeze on Israeli settlement activity.


While Israeli officials insisted that the new housing was long planned and remained within current settlement boundaries, it will renew the debate in Washington over Israeli compliance.

"It's difficult to see how 1,001 new housing starts are consistent with the road map," a Western diplomat said. "It's a big number."


Israel has been building settlements for years, no matter the ideology of the government, in the face of U.S. opposition. Building within current settlement boundaries - filling in empty spaces or building more stories on existing structures - is referred to by the Israelis as "thickening," and they argue that such thickening does not violate a freeze.

The Bush administration has not publicly agreed or disagreed with that Israeli interpretation, and the White House and the State Department do not always agree, either.

The Israeli lobby Peace Now criticized yesterday's announcement, saying it shows Sharon's intention to "continue the occupation." Its director, Yariv Oppenheimer, said, "Sharon has decided to scoff at his government's promise to freeze construction in settlements."

But some see the announcement as a political ploy to pacify settlers and Sharon critics.

"Sharon has no intention of building even one of those houses," Pinhas Wallerstein, a leader of the Yesha settlers council, told the newspaper Yediot Ahronot. "This is ugly manipulation, a political ploy and fraud with a view to the Likud convention."

President Bush has been a strong supporter of Sharon, and on a recent trip here the Middle East director of the National Security Council, Eliot Abrams, told Israelis that Bush trusts them on the settlement issue. That trust is not entirely shared among some career diplomats or in the European Union.

A team of American experts is scheduled to arrive next month to examine aerial photographs and maps to help decide whether Israel is living within its definition of a settlement freeze, a U.S. Embassy spokesman, Paul Pattin, said yesterday in Tel Aviv. "We expect Israel to abide by its commitments in the road map," he said.

The tenders, which are likely to be followed in the next few months by approval of another 633 housing units, were approved previously but suspended several months ago by Sharon. A new housing minister, Tzippi Livni, has reviewed the tenders and now has permission from Sharon to issue them.


The U.S. ambassador, Daniel Kurzer, was not informed in advance of the announcement.

Saeb Erekat, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, said: "This shows Sharon has no respect for the commitments he gave to President Bush to dismantle outposts and freeze construction in settlements."

Sharon faces opposition within Likud to his plan to form a unity government that includes the opposition Labor Party. Sharon wants to ensure that his proposal for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip can get through the government and parliament; he lost his formal parliamentary majority several months ago over opposition to the plan.

At today's convention, there will be a secret ballot on the plan to bring in Labor - opposed by key government officials such as Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.