JERUSALEM, (AP) – The U.S. is pressuring Israel to declare a complete freeze on West Bank settlement construction ahead of a high-stakes peace conference, rejecting Israel’s long-standing policy of expanding existing communities, Israeli government officials say.
The U.S. also wants Israel to release more Palestinian prisoners than it plans to free before the meeting, expected to take place in Annapolis, Maryland, later this month, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal the information.
U.S. Embassy officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
The U.S. has been urging Israel to make a series of gestures to the Palestinians ahead of the summit. American proposals have included an Israeli freeze on West Bank settlement construction and a large-scale release of Palestinian prisoners. Israel holds an estimated 9,000 such prisoners.
Israel maintains that it should be allowed to build housing in settlements to account for the “natural growth” of the existing settler population. The U.S. opposes settlement activity, but President Bush has signaled that he would support Israel’s position that it retain some settlements under a final peace deal.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert plans to ask his Cabinet on Monday to approve the release of 450 prisoners — far fewer than the 2,000 prisoners the Palestinians want freed in a bid to shore up moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his struggle against Islamic Hamas militants who control the Gaza Strip.
Olmert and Abbas have held a series of meetings to prepare for the Annapolis gathering, where they hope to relaunch formal peace negotiations. Talks broke down seven years ago in an outbreak of violence that still simmers.
No exact date for the meeting has been announced, reflecting troubles in the preparations. The sides had originally hoped to present a joint blueprint for peace to the conference, but negotiations on the document have made little progress.
On Sunday, Olmert told visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner that “Annapolis can’t be a failure, because the very fact that it’s taking place makes it a success.”
Aides close to Olmert — among them those who spoke to The Associated Press — traveled to Washington last week ahead and reported the U.S. positions on settlement construction and prisoner releases to the prime minister on Saturday night.
The dispute over settlement construction is just one sign of the gaping divide between Israel and the Palestinians as they head to Annapolis.
According to the U.N., 450,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel annexed east Jerusalem after the war, but the move is not internationally recognized. The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank as part of a future independent state, and want east Jerusalem to be their capital.
Ahead of the conference, Israel and the Palestinians recommitted to carry out their initial obligations under the long-dormant, U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, which would require Israel to stop settlement construction and the Palestinians to disarm militants.
The Palestinians say they have taken serious action to disarm militants in the West Bank, where a government loyal to Abbas is in charge. Israel says they have to do more to rein in gunmen.
Israeli spokesmen have said Israel will abide by the initial terms of the road map, but won’t be pinned down on whether they will stop all construction. But the Olmert aides who traveled to Washington reported that the U.S. administration is displeased that Israel has not changed its position on “natural growth” construction — even though it is explicitly banned under the road map, the Israeli government officials said.
On Saturday, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he sent a letter to the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, Jacob Walles, calling for Israel to quickly cease all settlement construction in the West Bank.
Abbas and Olmert are expected to meet on Monday to discuss “obstacles in the way of negotiations,” said Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo. Israeli government officials confirmed the meeting would take place.
The road map quickly foundered after it was accepted by both sides in 2003 because neither took concrete steps to fulfill their commitments.
With just days remaining before the Annapolis gathering, Israel’s lead negotiator, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, suggested last week that it is possible no joint blueprint will be released.
Negotiators were to meet later Sunday in another bid to formulate a blueprint, Israeli government officials said.