Tuesday, January 27, 2009

JERUSALEM | The front-runner in Israel‘s election said in an interview published Monday that he would let Jewish settlements expand in the West Bank if he’s elected prime minister, threatening to put him at odds with the Obama administration.

The remarks by hawkish Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu come just before the new U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, is scheduled to visit Israel, the West Bank and elsewhere this week for talks aimed at keeping alive a fragile Gaza cease-fire and reviving Middle East peace negotiations.

Mr. Mitchell is a critic of Israel’s West Bank settlements, which are a key issue in peace talks.

Mr. Mitchell is expected to meet with Israeli leaders, including Mr. Netanyahu. President Obama has pledged to dive into Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking at the beginning of his term.

Mr. Netanyahu, who is already a critic of U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, was quoted by the Ha’aretz daily as saying he would allow the Jewish settlements to expand to accommodate “natural growth” - building new housing to accommodate growing families among the settlers.

Such growth, however, is ruled out in the internationally backed “road map” peace plan that serves as the basis for negotiations.

With Israel’s Feb. 10 election just two weeks away and polls showing Mr. Netanyahu’s party ahead, Israel and the United States appeared headed for a clash.

U.S. policy supports creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza next to Israel, but Mr. Netanyahu, who served as Israel’s prime minister from 1996 to 1999, has always opposed giving up territory in the West Bank, maintaining that Israel needs to control it for security.

“I have no intention of building new settlements in the West Bank,” Mr. Netanyahu was quoted as telling international Middle East envoy Tony Blair on Sunday. “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. Mr. Blair’s office did not return calls seeking comment.

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.

Mr. 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.

The latest election polls show Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party leading Kadima and its candidate for prime minister, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, by about five seats in the 120-seat parliament.

The violent takeover of Gaza by the Islamic Hamas in June 2007 has complicated peace efforts.

On Jan. 17, Israel ended a devastating three-week military offensive in Gaza to stop daily rocket barrages, leaving Hamas still firmly in control.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Mr. Mitchell will not meet Hamas leaders on his visit.

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