- The Washington Times - Monday, May 25, 2009

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 about 280,000 Israelis - obstacles to peace because they are built on captured territory the Palestinians claim for a future state.

Mr. 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.”

An official who attended the meeting quoted Mr. Netanyahu as saying, “There is no way that we are going to tell people not to have children or to force young people to move away from their families.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.

Mr. 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 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 Authority President Mahmoud Abbas goes to the White House.

Mr. Abbas has said there is no point to meeting with Mr. Netanyahu unless he freezes settlement construction and agrees to open negotiations on Palestinian independence.

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.

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