Israel has rejected a call by the United States for a total freeze on settlement expansion in the occupied territories.
Israel said construction in Jewish settlements will continue despite U.S. pressure. President Barack Obama began pressing the settlement issue at a White House summit last week with Israel's hawkish new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And on Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed growing impatience with the Jewish state.
"With respect to settlements, the president was very clear when Prime Minister Netanyahu was here," Clinton said. "He wants to see a stop to settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions."
But Israeli Cabinet Minister Benny Begin said natural growth is a legitimate reason for building in existing West Bank settlements to continue.
"The Israeli Jewish towns and villages should develop according to the natural development rate and this must not be stopped," he said.
The settlement issue goes beyond natural growth. Underscoring the Israeli government's nationalist ideology, Begin referred to the West Bank by its biblical name-Judea and Samaria.
"It applies the right of the Jewish people to its homeland, not only near Tel Aviv and Haifa, but also in the cradle of our history, in Samaria and in Judea," Begin said.
Obstacle to peace
Both the United States and the Palestinians see the settlements as an obstacle to peace.
"This is our word to the world: No peace can be reached with one settler remaining in Palestine," said Palestinian official Rafiq Husseini.
The Palestinians said that until settlement expansion stops, resuming peace talks with Israel would be a waste of time.