BEITAR ILLIT, West Bank – On what was a bare West Bank hilltop a dozen years ago, construction workers hammer out the walls of yet more new houses in this now massive Jewish settlement.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who meets Tuesday with President Bush to discuss efforts to restart peace talks, says he will not uproot any of the settlements built on land the Palestinians claim for their state. Under his government, 34 new hilltop outposts have sprung up.
Israel says they are merely extensions of existing settlements, but Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said the new construction sends a clear message that Sharon is more interested in extending Israel's borders than in trying to negotiate peace.
"Sharon is destroying every possibility for peace between our two peoples," Abed Rabbo said.
Bush intends to urge Sharon to curb the settlement building, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday. "Something has to be done about the problem of the settlements," he said. "The settlements continue to grow and continue to expand."
But Sharon, a former housing minister with a long history of supporting the settlements, faces pressure from the right wing of his Likud party and would find it politically difficult to freeze all building in settlements.
Some 200,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip territories. A similar number live in the annexed section of Jerusalem that Israel seized in 1967 and the Palestinians consider their territory.
The settlement issue is one of the main stumbling blocks in the search for a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Past peace proposals have envisioned the dismantling of many of the settlements, but last month Sharon appeared to close the door on any such move under his watch, saying the settlements should be treated no differently than Tel Aviv, a large city in Israel's heartland.
"No settlement will be evacuated," he said. "Such an evacuation would only encourage terrorism and increase the pressure on us."
Critics say many of the settlements are so deep inside the Palestinian areas that they make a territorial division between Israel and a future Palestinian state impossible.
But Beitar Illit Mayor Yitzhak Pindrus said his community -- a suburb of neat stone houses, clean streets and fresh air just south of Jerusalem -- was close enough to Israel to be annexed.
In 12 years it was transformed from an open hill into a thriving bedroom community with 34 schools, endless rows of white-stone townhouses and 25,000 residents, nearly all of them Orthodox Jews who work or study in Jerusalem.
Many describe themselves not as settlers but as parents searching for affordable housing and trying to give their children the kind of placid, peaceful life they could never get in a big city like Jerusalem.
"There is no tension here. It's quiet. There's no stress," said Shimon Hazan, a 32-year-old teacher.
Others said they moved here because they would never have been able to afford a house without the massive government grants and loans given to many settlers.
"Without the money, no one here would own a house," said Moshe Wassershin, 23, a student who moved here two years ago.
The grants have become a large drain on Israel's recession-strained budget.
Throughout the 1990s, the country spent an average of 21/2 times as much money on settlers as on other Israelis, according to a study by the Adva Center, a liberal think tank in Tel Aviv.
Sharon's government has proposed reducing tax breaks for settlers, but no action has been taken yet.
At the same time, the government has allowed the creation of new hilltop outposts at an unprecedented rate, approving five on the night Sharon was elected in February 2000 and another 29 since, according to Peace Now, an Israel group that opposes the settlements.
Though private citizens were responsible for these efforts, the army has the capability to prevent them, as was done under the government of Sharon's predecessor Ehud Barak, said Peace Now spokesman Didi Remez.
"The message that it puts across to the Palestinians is the major problem," Remez said. "If the (Bush) administration wants to conduct constructive talks, it also must conduct them on the issue of the settlements."