JERUSALEM – The front-runner in Israel's upcoming election said in published comments Monday that he would expand existing West Bank settlements to allow for the "natural growth" of the communities — a policy liable to put him on a collision course with the Palestinians and the new U.S. administration.
The comments by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in an Israeli newspaper 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 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 would not build any new settlements if elected. However, he said he would continue Israel's policy of allowing existing settlements to expand to allow for "natural growth" of the local population.
"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."
A Netanyahu spokeswoman, Dina Libster, confirmed the quotes were accurate. Blair's office did not return messages seeking comment.
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.
Polls show Netanyahu's Likud Party handily winning Feb. 10 elections, a victory that would allow him to reclaim the premiership he held between 1996 and 1999. Netanyahu has said he would try to refocus peace talks on building the Palestinian economy and governing institutions.
That approach does not fly with Palestinian negotiators, who want the talks to continue focusing on resolving the key disputes with Israel over settlements, final borders, the fate of disputed Jerusalem and a solution for Palestinian refugees.
Further complicating the talks is the Hamas militant group's takeover of Gaza. Israel recently ended a devastating three-week military offensive against Hamas to make the Islamic group stop firing rockets at Israel.
In Gaza, the EU's top humanitarian official, Louis Michel, announced euro58 million ($74 million) to Palestinians, including euro32 million ($41 million) earmarked to "respond to the dramatic humanitarian situation in Gaza." But he said none of the funds would be channeled to Hamas, which he said "is acting in the way of a terrorist movement."
The EU, like Israel and the U.S., considers Hamas a terrorist group. Still, voicing the comments in the heart of Hamas' stronghold carried extra significance.
Michel also called for those responsible for the recent violence to be investigated on both sides. The Israeli offensive, launched to halt years of Hamas rocket attacks, killed nearly 1,300 people, more than half of them civilians, and caused extensive damage to Gaza's infrastructure. Thirteen Israelis also died in the fighting. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have agreed that the foundation for any peace accord would be the internationally backed "road map" peace plan, which explicitly bans all settlement construction and requires the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met on Monday with U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham in preparation for Mitchell's visit, which is to begin on Wednesday. The ambassador also updated Livni on U.S. efforts to recruit additional forces to an international effort to halt arms smuggling into Gaza, Livni's office.