- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 6, 2009

JERUSALEM — Israeli Cabinet ministers lined up on Sunday behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to approve the construction of hundreds of new apartments in West Bank settlements, defiantly shrugging off a rare and harsh public rebuke from top ally Washington.

Israeli officials announced the new construction on Friday, while suggesting they might halt some building in the West Bank in exchange for overtures from the Arab world.

But while Israel portrayed its willingness to consider a building slowdown as a concession toward peacemaking, the proposed new construction flouted U.S. demands for a complete settlement freeze. It drew swift denunciation from the Palestinians, who have conditioned the resumption of peace talks on a halt to all settlement activity.

Israel says a curtailment in construction would not apply to the new housing units, to the 2,500 units currently under construction or to east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim for the capital of a future state. Israel captured that sector of the city in 1967, and Mr. Netanyahu’s hawkish coalition objects to any territorial concessions there.

If Mr. Netanyahu hoped to defuse a coalition crisis by linking a possible building slowdown to the approval of new building projects, then the tactic appeared to work, judging by ministers’ comments ahead of the weekly Cabinet meeting.

The head of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Shas Party, Eli Yishai, spoke supportively of a “strategic pause” in construction. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz called Mr. Netanyahu’s move “well-conceived,” adding that no agreement had been reached with Washington on a construction freeze.

Mr. Netanyahu pointedly did not address the issue in prepared remarks before the weekly Cabinet meeting.

On Friday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the United States regretted Israel’s plans to approve additional settlement construction.

“As the president has said before, the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop,” Mr. Gibbs said in a statement.

In recent weeks, however, in the face of Mr. Netanyahu’s staunch refusal to freeze construction, the Obama administration has appeared to back down from its initial insistence that Israel halt all settlement expansion.

Washington’s Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, is due in the region later this week to try to bridge differences.

Peace talks have been suspended since shortly before Mr. Netanyahu’s election, but Israeli and Palestinian officials both have said that Mr. Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas might meet for the first time at the U.N. General Assembly in New York later this month.

Mr. Abbas, however, hinted Friday that such a meeting would not take place while settlement construction continues, saying “the meeting is not scheduled yet.”

On Sunday, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said the new construction “really undermines the efforts being exerted to revive the peace process”

About 300,000 Israelis live among about 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank. An additional 180,000 Israelis live in east Jerusalem neighborhoods built since Israel captured the area in the 1967 Mideast war.

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