Settlers reject Netanyahu plea to reduce tensions

AP News
Posted: Dec 03, 2009 9:28 AM

Defiant West Bank settler leaders rejected a personal plea from the prime minister Thursday to respect a government-ordered construction freeze in their communities, vowing to keep confronting security forces sent to enforce the edict.

In the West Bank, Jewish settlers blocked inspectors from entering a settlement to search for unauthorized construction, the third straight day of such confrontations. There has been no violence, but authorities have made at least four arrests.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summoned settler leaders in a bid to defuse the tensions.

Settler leader Dani Dayan called the meeting in Tel Aviv "difficult" and "emotionally charged." Speaking on Israel Radio, he said the settlers would continue their struggle against the freeze, both through civil disobedience and legal challenges. The settlers have scheduled a mass demonstration next week in Jerusalem.

During the two-hour meeting, Netanyahu told the settlers he respected their right to disagree, but told them they must respect the rule of law.

"You have the right to demonstrate. You have the right to protest. You have the right to express an opinion, but it's unacceptable not to respect a decision that was taken by law," Netanyahu said, according to a statement released by his office.

An Israeli official said 25 settler representatives attended, and talks were "businesslike." He said that while settlers criticized the government's decision, most of their complaints were focused on how the order is being carried out. They presented a list of 30 demands on how the order could be eased.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity under government guidelines, said Netanyahu agreed to consider the requests but made no promises. Netanyahu also offered to continue the dialogue with them.

"We need to get through this period together through cooperation, instead of creating an atmosphere of crisis," Netanyahu said, repeating a pledge to resume construction at the end of the freeze.

Netanyahu announced the 10-month freeze on building new homes last week in an attempt to restart peace talks with the Palestinians.

The Palestinians refuse to resume talks until Israel halts all construction in settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem _ territories they claim for a future independent state. They say Netanyahu's freeze order is insufficient because it does not include east Jerusalem or 3,000 homes already under construction in the West Bank.

The Palestinians also believe sitting down with Netanyahu would be fruitless because of the Israeli leader's hardline positions, such as his unwillingness to discuss sharing the city of Jerusalem, said Mohammed Shtayyeh, the Palestinian minister of public works and housing.

"Even if Netanyahu freezes settlements, Netanyahu and his coalition, according to our estimate, have no intention to conclude a peace agreement with us," Shtayyeh said during an interview in his West Bank office.

Thursday's unrest took place in the settlement of Kedumim, where settlers said they blocked inspectors from entering. A day earlier, Israeli police arrested the mayor of another settlement and three other activists for impeding their efforts to enforce the order.

Some 300,000 settlers live in the West Bank, in addition to 180,000 Jewish Israelis living in east Jerusalem.

The settlers have been struggling to regain their strength since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, uprooting all 8,000 settlers who were living there.

The settlers perceive the construction freeze as a betrayal by Netanyahu, a former ally. At the same time, they are wary of being portrayed as violent extremists.

All but two settler representatives boycotted a meeting late Wednesday with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who tried to assuage them by declaring that settlements near the Israel-West Bank boundary are "an integral part of Israel as regards any negotiations with the Palestinians."


Associated Press Writer Steven Gutkin contributed to this report from Ramallah, West Bank.