A team of American diplomats is due in Israel early next month for talks with Israeli officials on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plans to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. The visit comes amid reports that the Bush administration has changed its stance and now supports Israel's policy of building new housing in existing West Bank settlements. The American team of experts due here next month is to be headed by Constance Meyer, a senior analyst with the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. She will be accompanied by experts in aerial photography whose job it will be to consult with their Israeli counterparts on setting construction boundaries in West Bank settlements that are to remain in place after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
The visit comes in the wake of a New York Times report this weekend that the Bush administration has changed its position and no longer objects to the expansion of populations in the existing settlements so long as any new housing is built within the current settlement boundaries.
So far there has been no comment from the Israeli government on the new American position on the matter beyond a statement from the prime minister's office that "the issue is under discussion between us and the Americans."
There has been no public comment from Washington on the reported change in American policy. But word that a different view has been taken by the Bush administration comes following the announcement by Israel that it would begin taking bids for the construction of 1,001 new government-subsidized apartments for settlers in the occupied territories.
Previously the U.S. position has been that Israel should freeze all settlement activity, including the construction of new housing units. Israelis have referred to new units as the "natural growth" of settlements. Israel has just begun building 100 new housing units in the settlement of Har Gilo just outside Jerusalem.
According to The New York Times report, the administration made a decision this week to shift its policy so as not to complicate things for Mr. Sharon. The Israeli leader's plan to withdraw from Gaza has widespread public support in Israel with the notable exception of right-wing hardliners in his own Likud Party who have flatly rejected it. Expanding the population of West Bank settlements is seen as an attempt to placate those opponents.
The New York Times report also said Bush administration officials acknowledged that the last thing President Bush wants to do as he faces a tough campaign for re-election is to criticize Israel.