Israel to Expand West Bank Settlement in Violation of Pledge to U.S.

The Israeli government on Monday published plans to build 44 homes in Israel's largest West Bank settlement, violating a pledge to the United States as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in the region on a peace-seeking mission.

The Housing Ministry published ads in Israeli newspapers asking developers to bid on the construction project in Maaleh Adumim, a community of more than 30,000 people outside Jerusalem.

Freezing settlement construction in the West Bank is a key element of the long-stalled "road map" plan for Mideast peace, which both Israel and Rice championed vigorously in public statements during her three-day visit.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, who was traveling with Rice, said he wasn't aware of the bid. But he added: "Our policy hasn't changed."

In a published interview, Rice expressed general U.S. displeasure with settlement expansion.

"We are very committed to the road map and to the obligations there, and I talk all the time to the Israelis about their activity that is prohibited by the road map," Rice told the Palestinian daily Al-Quds.

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Palestinians, who are to gain independence under the peace plan, vehemently oppose any Jewish settlement in the West Bank, claiming all of the territory as part of their future state.

"Building 44 new houses in the Maaleh Adumim settlement is one more Israeli violation of signed agreements with the Palestinians," said Khalil Tofakji, a former Palestinian negotiator, referring to accords signed over the years in Oslo and Cairo.

Kobi Bleich, the Israeli Housing Ministry spokesman, said the timing of the bid's publication was motivated by professional considerations, and had no connection to the visit of foreign dignitaries.

"As soon as the Housing Ministry gets legal authorization to issue a bid, it does," Bleich said.

While the U.S. officially remains opposed to all settlement construction, Bush has signaled his support for allowing Israel to keep major settlement blocs, including Maaleh Adumim, under a final peace settlement. Most of the 250,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank live in such blocs.

Under the road map, all Israeli construction was to have halted in the West Bank, including new construction to account for the natural growth of existing populations. But Israel has continued building in Maaleh Adumim and other settlements since the road map was presented in June 2003.

The work includes a 33-mile loop around Maaleh Adumim, now being built, that would virtually cut the West Bank in half.

Despite the United States' repeated criticism of settlement construction, it has done little to halt construction.

Settlement expansion was one of the reasons the road map foundered soon after it was presented. The plan also calls on the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups, a step they have failed to take.

Also Monday, a senior U.S. official in Rice's delegation said the "trilateral meeting" will be aimed at "having a conversation about the political horizon leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state."

He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters on the record.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, confirmed the Israeli leader had agreed "in principle" to attend the summit. But she said no date or place had been set.

The U.S. official said the meeting would likely take place in the next three or four weeks somewhere in the Middle East.

Palestinian officials were not immediately available for comment on the meeting.