Israel defied U.S. pressure to halt construction in its West Bank settlements Sunday, with key leaders speaking out in support of the contentious enclaves and preparing to sign orders to allow building of hundreds of new housing units there.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are expected to approve orders for about 500 new apartments Monday, said Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the plans have not been finalized.
The Israeli government announced its plans to build the new units Friday while also outlining the idea of a subsequent partial freeze in settlement construction — an apparent attempt by Netanyahu to balance demands from both his conservative base and the Obama administration, which has called on Israel to halt all settlement construction.
But Netanyahu risks angering both sides. The White House immediately criticized the new building as detrimental to achieving Mideast peace, while members of the prime minister's Likud Party opposed limiting settlement construction at all.
"We were elected to fly the flag" of settlement, said Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom at a Likud gathering late Sunday. "We must not fly that flag at half staff."
But other Israeli officials were more supportive.
‘Strategic pause’ in construction
The head of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Shas Party, Eli Yishai, spoke supportively of a "strategic pause" in construction. And Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz called Netanyahu's move "well-conceived," adding that no agreement had been reached with Washington on a construction freeze.
If orders for the 500 new apartments are approved, they would be the first building permits issued since Netanyahu took office March 31, a kind of de facto slowdown that existed despite the prime minister's refusal to agree to Washington's demands to fully freeze settlement construction.
Such tense relations between the two strategic allies were rare when George W. Bush was president and moderate Ehud Olmert was Israel's premier. But public recriminations between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu have become routine.
Obama's envoy, George Mitchell, is expected in Israel at the end of this week or the beginning of next, according to Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. Mitchell has been the point man for the dispute over settlement construction.
Despite conflicting pressures, Netanyahu still hopes to work out a compromise deal that will satisfy the U.S. and allow for resumption of peace negotiations. Israeli officials have suggested they might halt some building in the West Bank in exchange for overtures from the Arab world.
‘This is a very dangerous equation’
Khaled Mashaal, the exiled leader of the militant Islamic Hamas, rejected that on Sunday in Cairo. "This is a very dangerous equation," Mashaal said. "We warn against any Arab rush toward normalization."
Hamas rules the Gaza Strip after overrunning it in 2007. The Western-backed regime of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas controls the West Bank.
Israel says a halt in construction would not apply to 2,500 units 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.
Palestinian officials continue to insist that there can be no peace talks until all the settlement construction is stopped. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Sunday that 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.