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Jan 26/09. JERUSALEM – The front-runner in Israel's election next month said he would allow existing West Bank settlements to expand as the population grows — a policy likely to face opposition from the Palestinians and the new U.S. administration.

The comments by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in an Israeli newspaper on Monday, just two days before Washington's new Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, is expected to make his first visit to the region. Mitchell, a critic of Israel's West Bank settlements, is expected to meet with Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, and focus on ways to revive peace talks in the wake of Israel's recent offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu, an opponent of current U.S.-backed peace talks, was quoted by the Haaretz daily as telling international Mideast envoy Tony Blair at a meeting Sunday that he would continue Israel's policy of allowing existing settlements to expand as families grow and new people move in.

"I have no intention of building new settlements in the West Bank," Netanyahu was quoted as saying. "But like all the governments there have been until now, I will have to meet the needs of natural growth in the population. I will not be able to choke the settlements."

Settlement construction in the West Bank has been a key obstacle to peace talks over the years. The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank as part of a future independent state that would also include the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. They say Israel's settlements, now home to 280,000 people in the West Bank, make it increasingly difficult for them to establish a viable state.

Nearly all Israeli settlement construction over the past decade has taken place in existing West Bank communities. And Netanyahu's positions do not significantly differ from outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has allowed construction in existing settlements to continue even while holding peace talks with the Palestinians.

Still, Mitchell's appointment has some Israeli leaders worried that the new administration of President Barack Obama will be tougher on Israel than the Bush administration was. In 2001, Mitchell called for a freeze on all Israeli settlement construction when he led an international commission to investigate violence in the Middle East.




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