Netanyahu rejects U.S. call for settlement freeze
Arafat cracking down on Islamic militants
September 26, 1997
Web posted at: 6:33 p.m. EDT (2233 GMT)
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Friday rejected U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's call for a freeze on expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
"I think you don't see anyone suggesting that construction be stopped in the Arab communities which have natural growth as well, and no one would realistically suggest freezing life," Netanyahu said Friday at a press conference.
On Thursday, an angry Albright, speaking at the United Nations, renewed her call for a freeze on Jewish settlement expansion. Her comments were in response to an announcement Wednesday by the Netanyahu government that it would build 300 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Efrat.
In an interview Friday, the secretary seemed to back off a bit, saying the decision on Efrat, considered by itself, "is not something that is particularly provocative."
But she said if "would have been helpful" if Netanyahu had told her about the decision when they spoke on the telephone Wednesday.
"It's just the timing of it," she said, referring to its possible impact on ongoing talks she and her senior Mideast adviser, Dennis Ross, are having with Israeli and Palestinian diplomats.
Albright has been trying to jump start the stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. During her first Middle East mission earlier this month, she urged a "time-out" on settlement expansions, which Palestinians consider provocative.
At the same time, she called on Palestinian officials to take stronger action against Islamic militants believed to be responsible for recent suicide bombings in Israel.
Arafat cracks down on militants
To that end, the government of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has rounded up dozens of suspected militants in the West Bank and Gaza in the last three days. It has also closed some institutions belonging to the Hamas movement, including a TV station and a kindergarten.
Militant factions of the larger Hamas movement, which also contains factions that don't endorse violence, have claimed responsibility for two recent suicide bombings that have killed 25 people.
Netanyahu Friday had a cautious but positive reaction to Arafat's crackdown, saying that if it continues, it could lead to resumption of the peace process.
"I hope this signifies a change, a real effort to try to get at the infrastructure of terrorism," the prime minister said. "If that is the case, I think that this would be a very good signal." (480K/22 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
Netanyahu surprised by Albright's reaction
Netanyahu's position is that Israel must continue to build settlements to accommodate population growth. His government offers incentives to Israelis to move to the settlements, including grants, tax breaks and subsidies.
The Israeli leader said he was surprised by Albright's angry reaction to the building program in Efrat, saying it had already been approved by the previous Labor government of Yitzhak Rabin.
However, Efrat's mayor, Enon Achiman, said while the settlement had previously been approved, the town had not been given approval to actually begin construction.
The disagreement between Netanyahu and the United States was the headline in every Israeli newspaper Friday. Some Israeli critics see the decision on construction in Efrat as a blunder the prime minister made trying to cozy up to Jewish settlers.
"Netanyahu, in speaking on settlements, was signaling to the Israeli right that he's still in their camp, he's still someone they can trust," said political analyst Leslie Susser. "I think he's quite surprised at the kind of coverage that it's gotten and the tremendously strong Palestinian and American response against it."
Jerusalem Bureau Chief Walter Rodgers and Reuters contributed to this report.