(CBS/AP) Israel would dismantle nearly two dozen wildcat settlement outposts in the West Bank in the next few weeks if the U.S. drops its objections to continued building in existing, government-sanctioned settlements, officials said.
Last week, President Barack Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington and demanded a halt to all settlement growth. But Netanyahu has defied that demand since his return to Israel, saying his government will continue to build homes in existing settlements.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak will bring the new proposal to senior American officials during his visit to Washington next week, the Israeli officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the proposal has not yet been officially submitted.
The wildcat outposts are a peripheral part of Israel's West Bank settlement enterprise because only a few thousand people live there, generally in tents or mobile homes. But these communities, set up to extend Israel's hold on West Bank land, have become a rallying point for settlers and their supporters and a bone of contention for Palestinians. Several have turned into full-fledged settlements.
Under the terms of the U.S.-backed "road map" plan for Mideast peace, Israel is to both take down the outposts and halt building in existing settlements. But it has flouted those obligations since the road map was signed in June 2003.
As Netanyahu comes under U.S. pressure to halt settlement and support creation of a Palestinian state, his hard-line supporters are pushing him from the other end to resist concessions.
Netanyahu faces impossible politics, internally and externally, wrote CBS News' chief political consultant Marc Ambinder last week. Israelis believe that the relationship with the United States is the crown jewel of their diplomacy and one thing that prime ministers can’t mess up. Alienating the Clinton administration was one major reason why Netanyahu was voted out of power in 1999.
On Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon and hawkish legislators from the ruling Likud Party proposed alternatives to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. At a conference in parliament, they said Israel should annex parts of the West Bank, while turning over Palestinian population centers to Jordanian jurisdiction.
Neither the Palestinians nor Jordan accept such an idea, and Jordan's foreign minister summoned Israel's ambassador to protest.
The legislators said past peace plans calling on Israel to give up captured land to the Palestinians have failed.
The "Western way of thinking has proven irrelevant and dangerous to this region," Yaalon said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is to meet Obama at the White House on Thursday, and Ahmed Qureia, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the demand for a complete settlement freeze will be the main issue.
"Any attempt to maneuver on the implementation of the road map regarding settlement activities is unacceptable," Qureia told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Abbas has said there is no point to meeting with Netanyahu unless he freezes settlement construction and agrees to open negotiations on Palestinian independence. Netanyahu has agreed to renew talks, but has resisted U.S. pressure to voice support for Palestinian statehood.
The U.S. considers the settlements - home to nearly 300,000 Israelis - obstacles to peace because they are built on captured territory the Palestinians claim for a future state.
But Netanyahu and Barak both say the 121 existing settlements must be allowed to expand for "natural growth," the ill-defined term Israel uses for population growth in the settlements.
Settlers have put up an estimated 100 outposts since the early 1990s without government authorization but with the knowledge of an array of government officials. Under the road map, some two dozen are to be torn down.
On Thursday, Israeli forces knocked down one outpost, Maoz Esther. But settlers vowed to rebuild, and on Tuesday a group of youths were at the site erecting wooden structures. No security forces were in evidence.
Netanyahu has clashed with members of his hawkish Cabinet in recent days over dismantling outposts, signaling the internal difficulties he would face if he tries to take stiffer action against settlement construction.
Barak, the official authorized to order outpost demolitions, has taken little action against the outposts since becoming defense minister two years ago.
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