A report in "The New York Times" newspaper at the weekend said the United States had shifted policy to support Israeli construction in settlement areas that were already developed. The report said Washington would remain opposed to expanding settlements to undeveloped areas.
The report came amid announcements by the Israeli government for 1,500 new housing units in existing settlements in the West Bank.
U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters yesterday that it is wrong to assume the United States is now supporting settlements.
But he declined to address specific settlement activity underway. Ereli repeatedly cited U.S. support for the Mideast "road map," which calls for a stop to settlement construction in occupied territories. "We need to make progress towards a freeze on settlement activity, and that is something we're working on now. If you ask me whether that means that all bulldozers have to be removed tomorrow, I'm not going to specify it for you. But I will say we are committed to -- the Israelis have said they're committed to -- making progress toward a freeze on settlement activity as part of the road map in order to fulfill the president's two-state vision. That's the big picture, and you've got to move in stages. You've got to take it step-by-step. But it is an ongoing process," Ereli said.
The road map has called for interim steps such as a halt in Israeli settlement activity and the dismantling of militant groups by the Palestinian side. Neither step has been fulfilled.
Ereli said U.S. and Israeli officials are engaged in technical talks to clarify Israel's "intentions with respect to settlements."
Palestinians oppose all settlement activity. They say it undermines their aim of establishing a viable independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There are an estimated 150 Israeli settlements housing more than 230,000 people in the West Bank.
Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said yesterday that the increase in settlement activity was a severe threat to the peace process.
"There is hardly a week that passes by without a declaration from the Israeli government of tendering hundreds and thousands of housing units for settlements, to expand the existing settlements, to even build on new land. This is destroying the peace process. This is destroying the two-state solution. If this land-grab continues, the question [needs to be] asked: Where would the Palestinian state be established?" Erekat said.
Middle East analysts say any softening of U.S. policy on settlements is likely a show of support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as he moves ahead with plans for withdrawing settlers from the Gaza Strip. Those plans are opposed by members of Sharon's own Likud party but Sharon's popularity with the Israeli public has risen of late.
Henri Barkey chairs the international relations department at Lehigh University in the eastern U.S. state of Pennsylvania, and is a former U.S. State Department official in the Clinton administration. He tells RFE/RL that the Bush administration appears to have made a cautious gamble to support some of Sharon's West Bank actions to help him move ahead with the Gaza withdrawal plans.
"That seems to be the bargain [the U.S. administration is] striking. The problem, unfortunately, is that we are stuck in a situation where nothing is moving without the Gaza plan. There is no initiative coming from the Palestinians or the Arab world at the moment that is worth looking at," Barkey said.
But the administration could risk serious damage to its role as the main Mideast broker if it fails to maintain public pressure on Israel to cease settlement activity, according to Richard Stoll, a professor of political science at Rice University in Texas.
"I think the problem is, if you don't publicly say 'We don't want you to do this,' every Arab in the region thinks that we've stepped even further onto the side of Israel," Stoll said.
The next major meeting of the U.S. partners in the road map peace plan -- the European Union, United Nations, and Russia -- are due to hold high-level meetings next month.