Clinton eyes Israeli plans for new West Bank roads

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WASHINGTON — The United States is preparing to unleash its diplomatic wrath against Israel if the government of Benjamin Netanyahu proceeds with plans to construct two roads through the West Bank.

At a news conference Tuesday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, President Clinton stopped short of condemning Israel, but put the Jewish state on notice that Washington is closely watching its construction plans.

"I don't want to blame them for something they haven't done yet," Clinton said, pointing out that the construction has not been formally approved by the Prime Minister's Office.

"We expect and believe that Israel will adhere to the agreements it has already made," Clinton said, and not "do anything inconsistent with the commitments made by the Israeli government before it."

National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon this week ordered the construction of two new roads in the West Bank that would run through areas administered by the Palestinian Authority.

The two projects, which the previous Labor government shelved and which would begin by year's end, involve spending some $55 million.

The first project will be a four-lane, six-mile-long link between Ben-Shemen, near Ben-Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv, with Atarot Airport, just north of Jerusalem. It will slice through the West Bank and enter Jerusalem from the north.

The second road will run east from north of Tel Aviv through the West Bank for 12 miles, connecting with the settlement of Ariel. The highway, an extension of the Trans-Samaria Highway, will link up with the new Trans-Israel Highway.

Sharon also ordered widening and upgrades of a north-south highway along the length of the West Bank through the Jordan Valley, and the replacement of two bridges over the Jordan River to the Golan Heights.

Palestinian Authority officials were quick to condemn the proposed construction.

Under the accords signed by the previous Labor-led government, Israel and the Palestinian Authority had agreed not to take any steps that would "change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip" pending the outcome of final-status talks.

But as is the case with many provisions of the accords, Palestinians and Israelis maintain differing interpretations.

Former Housing Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer criticized the Trans-Samaria project, saying that it would divert funds that could be used to build essential traffic arteries in the jammed center of the country.

But he welcomed the Atarot road, saying that it was part of the construction program that he had developed for the previous government.

The Peace Now group objected to both projects, saying that they were politically motivated and could sabotage the peace process.

The flap over construction through Palestinian-controlled areas came as West Bank Jewish settlement leaders emerged from a meeting this week with Netanyahu expressing satisfaction that the new leadership would be more supportive of their interests than the previous Labor-led government.

During Monday's meeting, the leadership of the Yesha Council, which represents settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, presented Netanyahu with three principle requests:

*That new settlements be established.

*That existing ones be expanded.

*That families be allowed to move into settlement homes and apartments that are currently empty.

Netanyahu made no commitments regarding his settlement policies during the meeting.

But settler leaders later said that they thought that it was clear that the Netanyahu government would not follow in the footsteps of the previous Labor government, which adopted a freeze on settlement building and purposely left some 3,000 homes and apartments empty to prevent settlement expansion.

"We haven't had a meeting like this with a prime minister in four years," said council spokesman Yechiel Leiter.

"The prime minister is enthusiastic about the things we have done in Judea and Samaria and is committed to the growth and development there."

The plans were roundly condemned by Labor MK Avraham Shohat, the former finance minister for Labor, who described them as "investments for political ends."

"The writing is on the wall," he said. "This government will cause a retreat from the Negev and Galilee and will put its resources once again into Judea and Samaria."

But Sharon dismissed suggestions on the part of left-wing activists that the roads would threaten the peace-talks. The two roads will be used by Jews and Palestinians alike, and "this will only strengthen the links and cooperation between the two populations," he said.