Under pressure from the United States to halt settlement expansion,
Israel's leader is trying to calm the fears of one of his most
important constituents: Jewish residents of the West Bank.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached out to Jewish settlers angry over his plan to declare a partial freeze on settlement construction in response to demands by the United States. Mr. Netanyahu is a hawk who has long supported Israel's controversial settlement enterprise. And his message was defiant. He said Israelis will compromise for peace but will not be "suckers."
Mr. Netanyahu told a gathering of his right-wing Likud party that the settlers are "good and loyal citizens of the State of Israel." He said they would be allowed to "live normal lives," a reference to permitting some construction in the settlements to accommodate "natural growth."
The U.S. has demanded a complete freeze on settlement expansion, including natural growth, but Mr. Netanyahu is offering a compromise. Current construction of 2,500 homes in the West Bank will continue along with 455 additional new housing units approved this week. But under a partial freeze, no further construction would be approved.
At the same time, Mr. Netanyahu said building will continue in disputed East Jerusalem, on land the Palestinians claim for the capital of a future state.
"Jerusalem is the united capital of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, and it will remain so forever," he said.
That could complicate U.S. efforts to revive the peace process. The Palestinians say they will not return to the negotiating table until all settlement activity stops, both in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The settlement issue will top the agenda when U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell arrives here this weekend for separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.