JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under stiff U.S. pressure to freeze West Bank settlement construction and endorse Palestinian statehood, said Sunday that he plans to deliver a major policy address laying out his proposed road to peace.
Netanyahu offered no hint of what he might say. So far, he has resisted pressure to bend to these two White House demands, deepening an unusually public faceoff with Israel's top ally.
"It must be understood, we seek peace with the Palestinians and with the states of the Arab world while trying to reach as much understanding as possible with the United States and our friends abroad," the Israeli leader said at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.
"My desire is to achieve a stable peace that rests on solid foundations of security for the state of Israel and its citizens," he added. "Next week I will make an important policy speech in which I will present to the citizens of Israel our principles on achieving this peace and security."
Netanyahu has publicly declared his commitment to peace before, but has offered few details about how he hopes to achieve an agreement with the Palestinians without ceding control of most of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
The Palestinians want those lands and the Gaza Strip for their future state, and say they won't renew peace talks until Israel agrees to freeze settlement construction and negotiate Palestinian statehood.
Israeli construction in the West Bank has long tormented peacemaking, because it is seen by the international community as a way of cementing control over areas claimed by the Palestinians.
Since entering office in January, Obama has taken up the issue head on. His administration hopes that halting settlement expansion would embolden the Arab world to make overtures toward Israel and improve U.S. relations with the Muslim world, which suffered under his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Obama's demands of Israel do not represent a break with U.S. policy. But his adamant and repeated pronouncement of them in high-profile appearances has generated much consternation and edginess in Israel, which had enjoyed almost unwavering support from Washington during Bush's eight-year tenure.
In speeches last week in Egypt and Europe, Obama prominently pressed for a settlement freeze and a two-state solution.
Israel has claimed that it reached unofficial agreements with the Bush administration to keep building in existing settlements. In particular, it has cited a 2004 letter signed by Bush in which the U.S. leader said a future peace deal would recognize "new realities on the ground" in the West Bank.
Those understandings were reached between 2001 and 2003, according to Dov Weisglass, who was a top aide to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The Bush administration agreed to allow construction inside the boundaries of existing settlements, Weisglass told Army Radio, though he said the precise delineation of those boundaries was never hammered out "for technical reasons."
However, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday that the White House would not recognize any informal understandings of the past.
Netanyahu would have a tough time ordering a construction freeze because his hawkish coalition is committed to an Israeli presence on West Bank land and could fracture over any U.S.-driven attempts to limit it.
He and his coalition partners demand the right to continue building to account for the ill-defined "natural growth" of the existing settler population.
Since Israel signed its first accord with the Palestinians in 1993, the West Bank settler population has more than doubled to nearly 300,000. An additional 180,000 Jews live in neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, the sector of the city that Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war and which Palestinians claim as capital of their hoped-for state.
Obama plans to dispatch his special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, to the region this week to try to break the impasse and get Israelis and Palestinians talking peace again. Mitchell has long seen a settlement freeze as intrinsic to progress on peacemaking.