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
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
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.