updated 3/25/2005 12:59:08 PM ET 2005-03-25T17:59:08

The U.S. ambassador said Friday it was unrealistic to expect a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank under a final Middle East peace deal, days after Israel announced plans to expand a major settlement outside of Jerusalem.

Ambassador Dan Kurtzer, speaking on Israel Radio, said he was reiterating U.S. policy made by President Bush last year. But the remarks came at a sensitive time, just days after Israel announced plans to expand Maaleh Adumim, its largest West Bank settlement.

In an interview published Friday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Israel’s plans to add 3,500 housing units to Maaleh Adumim were “at odds with American policy.” It was Rice’s sharpest criticism of Israel since she took office in January.

Expansion infuriates Palestinians
Calling the project “not really a satisfactory response,” Rice told the Los Angeles Times that the United States expressed its concerns this week to the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whom the Bush administration has staunchly supported.

The settlement expansion plan has infuriated the Palestinians, who claim all of the West Bank as part of a future state. On Thursday, senior Palestinian officials asked two U.S. envoys to block the expansion, saying it would endanger peace prospects, undermine efforts by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to end violence and restart negotiations with Israel, and isolate east Jerusalem.

Kurtzer’s remarks Friday came after the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot quoted him as telling a group of Foreign Ministry cadets that there is no understanding between the United States and Israel over future control of settlement blocs. Kurtzer angrily denied the Yediot report, saying it had “no basis in fact.”

“What I tried to explain to them is exactly what U.S. policy is. And U.S. policy is the support that the president has given for the retention by Israel of major Israeli population centers as an outcome of negotiations,” he said.

He later called Sharon, told him he was misquoted and reiterated the existing U.S. policy, Sharon spokesman Assaf Shariv said.

U.S. plan calls for freezing settlements
The U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan calls on Israel to freeze all construction in West Bank settlements, including building new homes to account for natural growth of existing populations.

But during a visit by Sharon to the White House in April 2004, Bush said a permanent peace deal would have to reflect “demographic realities,” a reference to Israel settlements.

“Our policy remains absolutely clear and absolutely firm, and it’s in black and white in a letter that the president gave to the prime minister,” Kurtzer said.

Sharon is planning a full Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank settlements this summer.

While leaving the door open to a larger pullout from the West Bank, Sharon has said he expects to retain large settlement blocs where most of the more than 200,000 settlers live, including Maaleh Adumim. Israeli officials routinely speak of “understandings” with the Americans about continued construction in large, established settlements.

The planned Maaleh Adumim expansion is especially contentious because it would link the settlement to eastern Jerusalem, separating Arab neighborhoods of the city from the rest of the West Bank. The Palestinians hope to make east Jerusalem the capital of their state.

Kurtzer did not mention the Maaleh Adumim project and said the United States remains committed to the road map, which envisions an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

'Fundamental American concerns'
U.S. Embassy spokesman Paul Patin said U.S. National Security Council official Elliott Abrams and State Department official David Welch raised the settlement construction with Israel during a visit to the region this week.

“American officials restated the fundamental American concerns about any unilateral actions that could prejudice the rights of other parties or the outcome of final status negotiations,” Patin said. “We will continue to follow this matter closely in view of the fact that a settlement freeze is a road map obligation.”

Kurtzer’s comments, however, did little to reassure the Palestinians.

“The United States can’t decide on behalf of the Palestinians and can’t decide final status negotiation issues by itself,” said Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian peace negotiator. “We urge the United States to have Israel stop settlement activity.”

In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said Israeli officials assured Abrams and Welch that a decision on housing construction was not final.

The U.S. officials “restated our concern and we would expect these concerns will be taken in account,” Ereli said.

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