From the New York Times:
JERUSALEM, Sept. 4 — The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, authorized construction bids on Monday for another 690 homes in the occupied West Bank in the face of pro forma American criticism.
The houses will be built in Maale Adumim and Betar Illit, two settlements near Jerusalem that the Israeli government says it intends to keep in any agreement with the Palestinians.
Mr. Olmert, whose Kadima Party was elected earlier this year on a promise to pull thousands of Israeli settlers out of the West Bank, beyond the route of Israel’s separation barrier, has been clear about keeping and expanding settlements inside the barrier, even though they are on land occupied since the 1967 war.
The Construction and Housing Ministry published advertisements on Monday seeking construction proposals for the largest settlement activity undertaken by this government. Israel has also promised President Bush that it will pull down more than 20 illegal outposts created since March 2001, but has not done so.
The Bush administration’s position is that Israel should not expand settlements in the West Bank, because it makes the process of a final agreement harder. In general, much of the world considers Israeli settlements in territory seized in the 1967 war, including East Jerusalem, to be illegal, which Israel disputes.
Stewart Tuttle, the spokesman for the American Embassy in Israel, said Monday that “in general it’s a principle of the road map — a foundation to reach peace in the region — that Israel not only remove illegal outposts, but also not expand settlements in the West Bank.”
The road map is the multistage peace plan supported by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations and agreed to in principle by the Palestinians and Israel. The Palestinians, in the first stage, are supposed to begin the disarming and dismantling of armed militias and terrorist groups.
The United States, Mr. Tuttle said, opposes “any actions that would prejudice final status negotiations, which would include the final borders of Israel and Palestine.”
But such criticism has had little effect on Israeli policy in the past, and is not expected to matter in this case. In general, Israel says it is not “expanding” settlements, but “thickening” them within existing built-up areas.
A former United States ambassador here, Daniel C. Kurtzer, tried to get Israel to agree with the United States on mapping the existing built-up areas of settlements in order to make it clear when settlements were being expanded. But Israel — which has detailed satellite maps of nearly every building in the West Bank — regularly refused.
The mayor of Maale Adumim, Benny Kashriel, said Monday that many units were under construction. “In short, it is just a matter of completing construction within a town,” he said. Maale Adumim has a population of 31,615 and looks like a Jerusalem suburb. The construction in Betar Illit is intended to house haredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The government’s move was criticized in Israel as well. “Instead of dismantling outposts and freezing construction in the settlements, the Olmert government is constructing further units and plans to authorize tens of illegal outposts,” said Yariv Oppenheimer, the director of the leftist lobby Peace Now. “All these actions are in contradiction of the Israeli commitment to the road map, and the commitment of the Labor and Kadima Parties to their voters.”
Mr. Olmert is also facing tough budget pressures. He has supported more military spending after the recent war in Lebanon and his coalition partner, Labor, supports more social spending and opposes cuts proposed by the Finance Ministry. Because of the sharp criticism of tuition increases and cuts in child support, publication of the budget was delayed Monday.
Labor’s leader, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, is being widely criticized for his performance, and aides to Mr. Olmert believe that Labor is creating a crisis over the budget to try to restore some of its credibility as a left-leaning party.
Mr. Olmert appeared before Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Policy and Defense on Monday for the first time since the war in Lebanon. He said that a war with Syria would be handled with full force.
He also confirmed that his plan for another unilateral withdrawal from part of the occupied West Bank was being shelved for now as the government concentrates on rebuilding the north.
“What I saw as right several months ago has changed now,” Mr. Olmert said, according to an aide and Israel Radio. “At this moment, the issue of the realignment is not in the order of priorities as it was two months ago.”
The capture of three Israeli soldiers on raids into Israel from Gaza and Lebanon and the heavy use of rockets by Hezbollah have brought many Israelis around to the thinking of the Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu. He argues that it would be unsafe for Israel to hand over large areas of the West Bank to a Palestinian Authority led by Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist, even though it says it is prepared to negotiate a long-term “truce” with Israel in its pre-1967 borders.
In Lebanon, a Qatari airliner landed at the Beirut airport on Monday afternoon with 142 passengers, piercing an Israeli air and sea blockade that was imposed July 12, at the start of the war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas. The Israeli Army said it had given its permission.
Like almost everything in Lebanon now, the blockade is murky. Israel has recently allowed relief flights and a limited shuttle service to Amman, Jordan, where passengers can board flights for other destinations.
But the flight on Monday was the first to arrive directly from a distant country, and it was greeted by local and Arab television crews as a mild triumph.
The maritime blockade continues, however, and is viewed as much more serious by many Lebanese merchants, who complain that their supplies are running short.