JERUSALEM – With a green light to build 455 homes for settlers in the West Bank, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have contained unrest among his right-wing supporters over a likely deal with the Obama administration to limit the growth of Jewish communities on land claimed by the Palestinians.
The Defense Ministry announced the construction permits Monday, ignoring White House objections voiced Friday after Israel’s intentions were disclosed.
Israeli officials insisted that the new housing units, along with 2,500 under construction, will be exempt from any suspension of settlement growth, even though discussions with U.S. special envoy George J. Mitchell over the issue are still in the final stages.
President Barack Obama had pressed for a full halt to settlement activity in order to coax the Palestinians into peace talks with Israel. When Netanyahu resisted, the discussions began focusing on limiting construction. But Israel’s new building permits upped the ante, complicating a U.S. effort to bring Obama, Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas together this month and launch a peace initiative.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Monday that Netanyahu’s decision “further undermines faith in the peace process and the belief that Israel is a credible partner for peace.” Earlier the White House voiced “regret,” and Abbas left it doubtful he would agree to meet with the Israeli leader.
In Israel, Netanyahu’s move was viewed as an awkward compromise that, while leaving all sides dissatisfied, might have been necessary to keep his governing alliance intact and the prospect of U.S.-brokered talks with the Palestinians alive. The building permits, the first granted since Netanyahu took office in March, appeared to cement a governing coalition that has pledged to tighten Israel’s hold over the West Bank.
“He allowed the minimum that will appease the hawks in his coalition and not annoy the United States too much,” said Danny Dayan, a leader of settler movement who had pressed for far more permits. “It was a cold tactical move.”
Israel has been building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since capturing the territories, along with eastern Jerusalem, in the 1967 Middle East War. Most countries consider the settlements a violation of international law. Israel unilaterally withdrew 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005 but, despite periodic U.S. pressure, maintains about 300,000 settlers among the West Bank’s 2.5 million Palestinians.
The settlers’ numbers have more than doubled in the past 18 years. Their leaders reject the goal of an independent Palestinian state and oppose any limits on Jewish settlement of the West Bank.
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