By KARIN LAUB, Associated Press
SHVUT RACHEL, West Bank (AP) — Israel has legalized one of the oldest and largest of the unsanctioned settler enclaves dotting the West Bank, a step denounced by the Palestinians and Israeli activists as a show of bad faith ahead of talks next week between the Israeli leader and President Barack Obama.
The dispute over settlements has confounded Washington's attempts to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, mostly on hold since 2008. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to stop construction and the Palestinians say they won't negotiate while Israel unilaterally determines the borders of their state through settlement-building.
Now, the question of outposts Israel has not formally sanctioned is coming to a head: The government is under Supreme Court orders to evacuate residents from Migron, a relatively large such enclave, by the end of March.
Aware that doing so could badly unsettle the ruling rightist coalition, officials have attempted to avoid a confrontation by persuading residents, so far unsuccessfully, to move to a nearby sanctioned settlement.
The stalled talks and dispute over settlements is bound to come up when Netanyahu meets Obama on Monday.
Shvut Rachel, home to 95 Israeli families, was established 21 years ago on a hilltop in the heart of the West Bank — an area Israel would likely have to withdraw from to make way for a Palestinian state. The settlers grabbed the land without government permission.
Now that approval seems at hand.
A planning committee last week retroactively legalized 115 apartments already built or under construction in Shvut Rachel, according to government officials and the community's acting mayor, Yaakov Moshe Levi. The panel also approved in principle nearly 500 more apartments there, though a construction start would require further permits and could be years away, government officials said.
The same committee also gave retroactive approval to about 100 apartments already built or under construction in the neighboring government-sanctioned settlement of Shilo. The move came after the Israel settlement watchdog Peace Now appealed against unauthorized construction in both communities to the Supreme Court.
In both petitions, Peace Now also sought an investigation of those behind the unauthorized construction.
On Thursday, Israel's attorney general asked police to launch an investigation into the Shilo construction, meeting a court-imposed deadline to the authorities to make a decision on the issue. Danny Dayan, the head of the settlers' umbrella group Yesha, declined comment.
Hagit Ofran of Peace Now said the attorney general has not made a decision concerning an investigation of the Shvut Rachel construction. She said the retroactive authorization of the homes there amounted to establishing a new settlement, contrary to pledges by successive governments over the past two decades not to do so. Israel's Defense Ministry rejected that characterization, saying Shvut Rachel is a neighborhood of Shilo.
Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian spokesman, said setting up a Palestinian state alongside Israel is becoming "practically impossible" because of such construction. He denounced the Shvut Rachel decision as an escalation of Israel's practices.
The Palestinians want to set up their state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. However, half a million Israelis already live on war-won land, in more than 130 government-sanctioned settlements and some 100 unauthorized outposts set up by settlers who are open about their desire to impede any partition.
There is little discussion of Jewish settlers remaining in a Palestinian state and Israel has a history of using the location of settlements to stake claims on West Bank land in the context of negotiations.
On the other hand, Israeli government officials note that Israel has proven in the past that it can and will dismantle settlements. They point to the removal of Sinai settlements when the area was returned to Egypt some 30 years ago, as well as the dismantling of nearly two dozen communities in 2005 as part of the Gaza pullout.
Spokesman Mark Regev insists the current Israeli government "has shown more restraint on the issue of settlements than any previous government," referring to a 10-month construction slowdown in 2010. He reiterated that the fate of settlements must be determined in negotiations and that Israel is willing to resume talks immediately.