WASHINGTON - An unwritten agreement between the Bush administration and former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, according to which some of the larger settlements in the occupied West Bank would ultimately become part of Israel, was hindering US President Barack Obama's efforts to pressure Jerusalem into halting all settlement expansion, the Washington Post reported Sunday.
In an interview with the al-Jazeera Network last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, "We want to see a stop to settlement construction, additions, natural growth – any kind of settlement activity. That is what the president has called for."
"Natural growth" refers to population expansion as a result of births, adoptions and the like – a position successive Israeli governments have rejected, though, according to the Post, it is an Israeli obligation in the 2003 peace plan known as the "road map."
The Bush administration accommodated Israeli concerns with a secret understanding that allowed for growth in settlements that Israel hopes to keep in any peace deal with the Palestinians, the newspaper said.
In an interview with The Washington Post last year, Sharon aide Dov Weisglass said that in 2005, when Sharon was poised to remove settlers from Gaza, the Bush administration arrived at a secret agreement -- not disclosed to the Palestinians – that Israel could add homes in settlements it expected to keep, as long as the construction was dictated by market demand, not subsidies.
Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser who negotiated the arrangement with Weisglass, confirmed the deal in an interview with the newspaper last week.
"At the time of the Gaza withdrawal, there were lengthy discussions about how settlement activity might be constrained, and in fact it was constrained in the later part of the Sharon years and the Olmert years in accordance with the ideas that were discussed," he was quoted by the Post as saying.
"There was something of an understanding realized on these questions, but it was never a written agreement."
Mark Regev, an aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told the Washington Post that there are no plans for a full settlement freeze. "The issue of settlements is a final status issue, and until there are final status arrangements, it would not be fair to kill normal life inside existing communities," he said.
Netanyahu said during the Sunday's weekly cabinet meeting that while "while we will not authorize the construction of new settlements, it would be unfair not to accommodate natural (population) growth."
Roni Sofer contributed to the report