Mazal Mualem, Barak Ravid
December 11, 2009 - 1:00am

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to seek cabinet approval for a new map of "national priority" zones does not contradict Israel's declaration of a 10-month construction freeze in West Bank settlements, the prime minister's bureau assured senior United States administration officials late Thursday.

The new map would enable another 110,000 settlers - most of whom live outside the major settlement blocs - the economic benefits conferred on residents of zones already included on Israel's list.

Senior U.S. administration officials told Haaretz earlier Thursday that the prime minister's bureau had provided satisfactory explanations as long as the benefits plan was in keeping with the freeze and that money would not be transferred for new housing in the settlements.

All Labor Party ministers are expected to vote against the proposed revision of the country's national priority zones at Sunday's cabinet meeting. The ministers are objecting to the fact that the new map confers national priority status on several isolated settlements. Designation as a national priority zone entitles a town to various economic benefits.

Several Labor ministers said that even party chairman and defense minister Ehud Barak would not be able to vote for the map in its current form.

At a meeting of Labor ministers on Thursday, the inclusion of the isolated settlements - outside the major settlement blocs - was harshly criticized. The ministers said they were particularly furious that when Eyal Gabai, the director general of the Prime Minister's Office, presented the map to Labor's Knesset faction on Monday, he did not mention any of the isolated settlements it included.

Gabai, they said, merely told them that the sole criterion for determining which West Bank settlements to include was security. As a result, no questions were asked.

The ministers added that they had been pleased by the map's heavy focus on communities in the Negev and Galilee, as well as the fact that Arab towns were well represented. The only problem, they said, is the settlements.

Thursday's meeting ended with a decision to make an all-out effort to get the map changed before Sunday's vote.

"It's wrong to include settlements in the heart of the West Bank in the priority zone map," explained Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog at a conference of southern mayors Thursday. "Such a move contradicts the desire to divide the land under a future peace agreement. But in everything related to advancing the Negev and the Galilee, the map has clear advantages [over the one currently in force]."

Some Labor MKs, such as Ophir Pines-Paz, urged the ministers Thursday to make the settlements' removal from the map a non-negotiable condition of Labor's continued presence in the government.

Pines-Paz added that he found it "hard to believe" that Barak "was not a partner in drafting the map."


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