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Settlement deep in West Bank seen as peace spoiler

Union Tribune (2010-03-07) KARIN LAUB

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Media Link: http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2010/mar/06/settlement-deep-in-west-bank-seen-as-peace-spoiler/
More Info: Israeli Palestinian Conflict

By KARIN LAUB, Associated Press Writer

Saturday, March 6, 2010 at 9 p.m.

In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, a woman rests on the  edge of a swimming pool in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel.  Ariel has ambitions of becoming a city, and is beginning to look like  one, with its 19,000 people, its college and $10 million sports complex,  and the four-lane highway leading to it. But Ariel is a West Bank  settlement, and its geography casts a heavy shadow over Palestinian  hopes of a getting a viable state of their own. (AP Photo/Moti Milrod)

/ AP -- In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, a woman rests on the edge of a swimming pool in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel. Ariel has ambitions of becoming a city, and is beginning to look like one, with its 19,000 people, its college and $10 million sports complex, and the four-lane highway leading to it. But Ariel is a West Bank settlement, and its geography casts a heavy shadow over Palestinian hopes of a getting a viable state of their own. (AP Photo/Moti Milrod)

In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, a woman rests on the  edge of a swimming pool in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel.  Ariel has ambitions of becoming a city, and is beginning to look like  one, with its 19,000 people, its college and $10 million sports complex,  and the four-lane highway leading to it. But Ariel is a West Bank  settlement, and its geography casts a heavy shadow over Palestinian  hopes of a getting a viable state of their own. (AP Photo/Moti Milrod)

- AP In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, shown is a general view of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel. Ariel has ambitions of becoming a city, and is beginning to look like one, with its 19,000 people, its college and $10 million sports complex, and the four-lane highway leading to it. But Ariel is a West Bank settlement, and its geography casts a heavy shadow over Palestinian hopes of a getting a viable state of their own. (AP Photo/Moti Milrod)

In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, a woman rests on the  edge of a swimming pool in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel.  Ariel has ambitions of becoming a city, and is beginning to look like  one, with its 19,000 people, its college and $10 million sports complex,  and the four-lane highway leading to it. But Ariel is a West Bank  settlement, and its geography casts a heavy shadow over Palestinian  hopes of a getting a viable state of their own. (AP Photo/Moti Milrod)

- AP In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, the Ariel college is seen in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel. The planned upgrade of the college, which already calls itself a "university center," is perhaps the most controversial in Israel. (AP Photo/Moti Milrod)

In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, a woman rests on the  edge of a swimming pool in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel.  Ariel has ambitions of becoming a city, and is beginning to look like  one, with its 19,000 people, its college and $10 million sports complex,  and the four-lane highway leading to it. But Ariel is a West Bank  settlement, and its geography casts a heavy shadow over Palestinian  hopes of a getting a viable state of their own. (AP Photo/Moti Milrod)

- AP -- In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, an Israeli worker tends to a production line at the Barkan Mounting systems factory in the industrial area of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel. Ariel has ambitions of becoming a city, and is beginning to look like one, with its 19,000 people, its college and $10 million sports complex, and the four-lane highway leading to it. But Ariel is a West Bank settlement, and its geography casts a heavy shadow over Palestinian hopes of a getting a viable state of their own. (AP Photo/Moti Milrod)

In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, a woman rests on the  edge of a swimming pool in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel.  Ariel has ambitions of becoming a city, and is beginning to look like  one, with its 19,000 people, its college and $10 million sports complex,  and the four-lane highway leading to it. But Ariel is a West Bank  settlement, and its geography casts a heavy shadow over Palestinian  hopes of a getting a viable state of their own. (AP Photo/Moti Milrod)

- AP -- In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, shown is a general view of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel. Ariel has ambitions of becoming a city, and is beginning to look like one, with its 19,000 people, its college and $10 million sports complex, and the four-lane highway leading to it. But Ariel is a West Bank settlement, and its geography casts a heavy shadow over Palestinian hopes of a getting a viable state of their own. (AP Photo/Moti Milrod)

In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, a woman rests on the  edge of a swimming pool in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel.  Ariel has ambitions of becoming a city, and is beginning to look like  one, with its 19,000 people, its college and $10 million sports complex,  and the four-lane highway leading to it. But Ariel is a West Bank  settlement, and its geography casts a heavy shadow over Palestinian  hopes of a getting a viable state of their own. (AP Photo/Moti Milrod)

- AP -- In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, Israeli students study at the Ariel college in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel. The planned upgrade of the college, which already calls itself a "university center," is perhaps the most controversial in Israel. (AP Photo/Moti Milrod)

In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, a woman rests on the  edge of a swimming pool in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel.  Ariel has ambitions of becoming a city, and is beginning to look like  one, with its 19,000 people, its college and $10 million sports complex,  and the four-lane highway leading to it. But Ariel is a West Bank  settlement, and its geography casts a heavy shadow over Palestinian  hopes of a getting a viable state of their own. (AP Photo/Moti Milrod)

- AP -- In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, Ariel college president Dan Meyerstein speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in his office in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel. The planned upgrade of the college with 8,700 full-time and 2,500 part-time students is perhaps the most controversial in Israel. In January, Defense Minister Ehud Barak removed a bureaucratic hurdle that enables the college, which already calls itself a "university center," to become a full-fledged university by 2012. (AP Photo/Moti Milrod)

In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, a woman rests on the  edge of a swimming pool in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel.  Ariel has ambitions of becoming a city, and is beginning to look like  one, with its 19,000 people, its college and $10 million sports complex,  and the four-lane highway leading to it. But Ariel is a West Bank  settlement, and its geography casts a heavy shadow over Palestinian  hopes of a getting a viable state of their own. (AP Photo/Moti Milrod)

- AP -- In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, Israeli mayor and founder of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel, Ron Nachman, poses for a photo on the outskirts of Ariel. Ariel has ambitions of becoming a city, and is beginning to look like one, with its 19,000 people, its college and $10 million sports complex, and the four-lane highway leading to it. But Ariel is a West Bank settlement, and its geography casts a heavy shadow over Palestinian hopes of a getting a viable state of their own. (AP Photo/Moti Milrod)


ARIEL, West Bank — Ariel has ambitions of becoming a city, and already boasts 19,000 people, a college, a $10 million sports complex, and a four-lane highway leading to it.

But Ariel is a West Bank settlement, and its geography casts a heavy shadow over Palestinian hopes of a getting a viable state of their own.

Ron Nachman, its founder and mayor, says the community he began with two tents on a hill 32 years ago is already an irreversible fact. To reaffirm that claim and promise future growth, Israel's prime minister, the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, recently planted a tree here, while his centrist coalition partner, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, paved the way for the college to become a full-fledged university.

But if Ariel stays, it would gouge a giant hole in any future Palestinian state or could prevent its creation entirely.

As the U.S. pushes to renew peace talks, Israel's plans here - encouraged by evangelical Christians in the U.S. - are deepening the Palestinians' distrust. Even some Israelis, including former peace negotiators, warn a partition deal is impossible if Israel retains Ariel.

Of the four major settlement blocs Israel hopes to keep in a peace deal, three are close to its borders. But Ariel juts deep into the would-be nation of Palestine.

"There is no viability for a Palestinian state if they keep Ariel," warned Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Twenty kilometers (12 miles) may not sound like much, but the distance is critical in the argument over territory. Ariel is midway into the West Bank, while heavily populated mid-Israel to the west is also just 20 kilometers (12 miles) wide.

And Ariel isn't alone. Its satellite settlements house 30,000 people - 10 percent of the Jewish population of the West Bank.

Nachman dismisses the notion of Palestinian statehood, calling it a security threat, and he believes no Israeli government can afford to dismantle his town. And even though he laments the current freeze on settlements imposed by Netanyahu, he dreams of tripling Ariel's population to 60,000 within a generation.

There is precedent for uprooting settlers - Israel evacuated several thousand when it returned the Sinai Desert to Egypt in 1982, and another 8,500 when it left Gaza in 2005. But Ariel poses a unique dilemma - its size makes it difficult to evacuate, but its location makes it hard to annex.

And as Ariel grows, so does the dilemma.

The settlement's attractions - government subsidies, cheap housing - all but assure future expansion.

On a recent afternoon, swimmers did laps in the sports center's glass-enclosed pool, which offered a spectacular view of the surrounding West Bank hills, while runners worked out on treadmills.

Alex Yurievsky said he moved here from the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikvah two months ago because he got a house for about half the price he would have paid in central Israel. The 40-year-old immigrant from Ukraine said three friends from Petah Tikvah also decided to move to Ariel after visiting him.

Yet Nachman complained that Ariel has been shortchanged over the years, and that he has no housing for new arrivals. Indeed, three settlements are already more populous, growing faster than Ariel.

The curb on construction is to last 10 months, ending in September, and was a partial concession to the Obama administration, which sought a comprehensive freeze.

Israel seems to recognize that Ariel is a potential problem. Bowing to U.S. pressure, it didn't connect Ariel's perimeter fence to the West Bank separation barrier, seen by some in Israel as the basis for a future border.

Former Israeli negotiators say Ariel emerged as a major obstacle in previous border talks, and that in two sets of simulated negotiations, the Israeli team ended up ceding Ariel to the Palestinians.

Still, construction is continuing on 80 apartments and 130 college dorm rooms - all exempt from the freeze because their foundations were poured before it took effect, Israeli officials said.

Nachman said he has completed plans for 3,000 more apartments, but requires government approval. He said he'll push for permits once the freeze is over, but complained that he has been stonewalled by Israel's leaders in the past.

The Housing Ministry refused to comment on building plans for Ariel.

The industrial park has a dozen factories, and Nachman has said he expects two dozen more to move in. Entrepreneur Lior Barkan, who owns a factory for LCD screen-mounting systems, said he set up shop in Ariel because of cheaper land and tax breaks.

Plans for developing Ariel also include a two-story shopping mall, and during his visit in January, Netanyahu promised Ariel a cultural center.

"This is where our forefathers lived," he said. "This is where we will remain and build."

The planned upgrade of the college with 8,700 full-time and 2,500 part-time students is perhaps the most controversial in Israel. In January, Barak removed a bureaucratic hurdle that to enable the college to become a full-fledged university by 2012, said its president, Dan Meyerstein.

Meyerstein said the college - like the settlement - has broad Israeli public support. However, others warned it would make Israel vulnerable to an academic boycott by pro-Palestinian activists.

Last year, Spain expelled Ariel's college from a solar power design contest because it's in a settlement, while 250 Israeli university lecturers signed a petition this month opposing the college's upgrade.

As debate simmers in Israel about the pros and cons of quitting the West Bank, Ariel's boosters argue that leaving the settlement in place is good for peace. They say Israeli voters will only support a peace deal in which the number of uprooted settlers is kept low.

The hilltop settlement was founded in 1978 by the government of then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Netanyahu's ideological mentor.

It spreads over more than 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres), some of it taken from nearby Arab villages, according to Israeli settlement monitors. The location was chosen because it controls a major aquifer and helps shield Israel's narrow coastal plain, Nachman said.

Ariel is a major employer in the area; several thousand Palestinians work in its industrial park and a neighboring one with 120 factories.

The settlement grew in spurts, most rapidly in the 1990s with the arrival of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Today, half of Ariel's residents are immigrants, and many shop signs are in both Russian and Hebrew.

Beyond the tax breaks and affordable housing, Ariel offers perks that result from an alliance between Nachman and U.S. Christian Zionists. The evangelicals believe a Jewish return to biblical Israel hastens Christ's prophesied return.

Christians, including followers of TV evangelist John Hagee, have donated generously to Ariel, helping build the sports complex and an adventure trail, part of a youth leadership center. The center, with climbing walls, ropes and an Alpine tower, will be inaugurated in April.

Ukrainian-born Elisabeth Isakov, 47, who runs a liquor store, said that after 16 years in Ariel, she'd be reluctant to leave, even for compensation. "It's our city," she said.

Yurievsky, the newcomer, said he doesn't mind a Palestinian state next door, provided Ariel is part of Israel. Pushing a baby stroller carrying his 6-month-old son, he said: "I want a border so it will be quiet, but Ariel is ours."

The Associated Press

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Title Settlement deep in West Bank seen as peace spoiler
Publisher Union Tribune
Author KARIN LAUB
Pub Date 2010-03-07
Media Link http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2010/mar/06/settlement-deep-in-west-bank-seen-as-peace-spoiler/
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Topic revision: r2 - 2016-05-16, UnknownUser
 

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