Even as the Arab League condemned his expansion of Jewish settlements, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday approved construction of hundreds of new homes in the occupied Jordan Valley and vowed that Israel will retain control of the area in a permanent accord with the Palestinians.
The move to fortify Israeli sovereignty in the lush strip of West Bank land came days after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned Netanyahu in a letter that settlement expansion threatens to “destroy” relations between Israel and its Arab peace partners.
And it came as Jordan’s King Hussein told British Broadcasting Corp. television he is becoming impatient with Netanyahu’s lack of progress in talks with Palestinians and that he fears for the future of the peace process.
“Without visible progress in implementing agreements reached earlier between the Israeli government and the Palestinians in particular, we are at the mercy of events,” Hussein said in Sunday’s interview. “Anything could happen that could throw us completely off the track we have chosen.”
The hard-line Netanyahu rejects the premise of trading occupied land for peace that underlies the agreements his predecessors from the Labor Party signed with the Palestinians. Although he has promised to uphold the accords, Israel and the Palestinians have been deadlocked for weeks over the terms of an Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank town of Hebron that is required by an interim agreement.
In the last six weeks, Netanyahu has moved decisively to expand Jewish settlements in what Arab leaders view as a violation of the spirit of the agreements. Netanyahu allowed the sale of 3,000 apartments that had been frozen during the previous peace negotiations and authorized the construction of 3,000 new units in the West Bank settlements of Emmanuel and Kiryat Sefer.
Netanyahu also has said his government will expand Israeli communities in the Golan Heights. Israel captured that territory from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, and Syrian President Hafez Assad says it must be returned if he is to make peace with Israel.
On Sunday, Jordan Valley settler leaders presented Netanyahu with a plan that would nearly triple the Jewish population of that area to 15,000 residents in five years. Afterward, Netanyahu issued a statement that the fertile border region - part of the West Bank territory captured from Jordan in the 1967 war - is “inseparable” from Israel.
“The prime minister said that the government has total commitment to the development and prosperity of the Jordan Valley and (that) even in a tough budget year such as this, the government will budget money for the development of infrastructure and roads in the Jordan Valley,” the statement said.
David Levy, chairman of the Jordan Valley District Council, said Netanyahu gave the goahead for the construction of 350 housing units in the region next year. He said the settlers told Netanyahu that “there must be more than just natural growth in the Jordan Valley” and that the prime minister “agreed to almost every word we put in front of him.”