JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel will continue to build homes in existing West Bank settlements, defying U.S. calls to halt settlement growth.
The comments came days after a contentious visit to the White House and threatened to widen a growing rift with the Obama administration. The U.S. considers the settlements — home to some 280,000 Israelis — obstacles to peace since they are built on captured territory the Palestinians claim for a future state.
Netanyahu told the weekly meeting of his Cabinet that he would not allow any new settlements to be created, but said existing settlements must be allowed to expand for "natural growth," the ill-defined term Israel uses for population growth in the settlements.
"We will not build new settlements," he said, according to remarks released by his office. "But it is not fair not to provide a solution to natural growth."
Netanyahu has voiced this policy before, but his affirmation of his plans took on added significance coming so close after his tense first White House visit with President Barack Obama. U.S. policy on Israeli settlements does not allow for natural growth.
Israeli officials have sought to play down their differences with Washington, saying that joint working groups will continue discussions on the matter. The settlement issue is sure to come up this week when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas goes to the White House.
Abbas has said there is no point to meeting with Netanyahu unless he freezes settlement construction and agrees to open negotiations on Palestinian independence.
Netanyahu spoke after a heated Cabinet debate over what to do with settlement outposts, wildcat communities established by settlers to cement their hold on the West Bank.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that nearly two dozen outposts would be torn down, and warned that settlers would be evicted forcefully if they resisted. But other members of the hawkish Cabinet objected to immediate action, signaling the difficulty the Israeli leader faces in dealing with a new U.S. administration eager to revive stalled Mideast peace efforts.
Israel has sanctioned the construction of 121 settlements over the years. In addition, settlers have put up an estimated 100 outposts since the early 1990s. Although the outposts were not sanctioned by the government, an array of officials were complicit in their construction, a government-commissioned report has charged.
Before the Cabinet meeting, Barak told reporters that he would take down 22 outposts that Israel promised the U.S. to dismantle under the 2003 "road map" peace plan.
"The 22 ... have to be dealt with now in a responsible, appropriate manner, first of all, exhausting all efforts at dialogue and if that proves impossible, then unilaterally, using force if necessary," he said.
Barak, the official authorized to order demolitions, has repeatedly made similar pledges since he became defense minister two years ago but taken little action. He gave no timeline for the promised demolitions.
A small settlement outpost in the West Bank was dismantled Thursday, a day after Netanyahu returned from his trip to Washington. The outpost has been torn down before and settlers vowed to rebuild it again.
Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said the government would not tolerate unsanctioned construction.
But several ministers in Netanyahu's hard-line Cabinet said they were in no hurry to knock down the unsanctioned outposts.
The evacuation of outposts needs to be part of a "comprehensive program," and not piecemeal, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said.
"Outposts do not have to be dismantled now," said Interior Minister Eli Yishai. "There is rampant illegal construction on the part of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. If we go for enforcement, then enforcement has to be unified, just and equitable."
Talia Sasson, author of the 2005 government-commissioned report on the outposts, predicted Netanyahu would use the outposts to deflect public scrutiny from continued construction in the authorized settlements.
"What we will see, in the final analysis, is more building in the settlements," Sasson told Army Radio. "This obstruction of the rule of law in the evacuation of outposts has already become a farce."