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Israeli Ministers Pay Solidarity Visit to Settlements

Israel's leader is coming under growing pressure from hardliners in his coalition to reject American demands for a halt to settlement expansion.

A delegation of four hawkish Israeli Cabinet ministers toured controversial settlement outposts in the West Bank Monday in solidarity with Jewish residents there.

It was a direct challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has vowed to dismantle about two dozen outposts in response to pressure from the United States. Washington has demanded a complete freeze on settlement expansion, saying Israel is creating facts on the ground on territory the Palestinians seek for a future state.

There are about 100 outposts in the West Bank, most of them consisting of makeshift structures and trailer homes. Residents are young, religious settlers, who seek to expand the Jewish presence in all the biblical Land of Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu has declared the outposts illegal, but the Cabinet delegation denied that, saying they are legitimate because previous Israeli governments had approved them.

Cabinet Minister Yuli Edelstein of Mr. Netanyahu's Likud party noted that Israel just marked the fourth anniversary of the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, where 21 Jewish settlements were dismantled and 8,000 settlers evacuated. He said there should be no further evacuations because, when Israel pulled out, the Islamic militant group Hamas took over.

"We removed all the settlements out of the Gaza Strip. We have a terrorist entity there, shooting rockets at the Israeli civilians. The whole area is insecure," Edelstein said.

While Mr. Netanyahu supports the settlements ideologically, he is prepared for concessions because he wants to heal a growing rift with Washington. Edelstein is hoping that Israel and the U.S. can find common ground.

"There are misunderstandings, there are disagreements on certain issues; and at the same time, we always have to keep in mind that it's still possible to bridge the gaps," said Edelstein.

But bridging the gaps won't be easy as long as Mr. Netanyahu's nationalist coalition partners try to tie his hands and prevent any significant action against the settlements.