Israel is poised to approve more West Bank settlement building today after key leaders defied US pressure and backed the controversial enclaves.
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defence minister Ehud Barak were expected to rubber stamp orders for about 500 new apartments, Israeli officials said.
The government announced its plans to build the new units on Friday, while also outlining the idea of a subsequent partial freeze in settlement construction - an apparent attempt by Mr Netanyahu to balance demands from both his conservative base and the Obama administration, which has called on Israel to halt all settlement building.
But Mr Netanyahu risks angering both sides – the White House immediately criticised the new building programme as detrimental to achieving Middle East peace, while members of the prime minister’s Likud Party opposed limiting any settlement construction.
“We were elected to fly the flag” of settlement, said deputy prime minister Silvan Shalom at a Likud gathering last night. “We must not fly that flag at half-staff.”
But 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 Mr 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 Mr Netanyahu took office on 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 Bush was president and moderate Ehud Olmert was Israel’s premier. But public recriminations between President Barack Obama and Mr Netanyahu have become routine.
Mr Obama’s envoy, George Mitchell, who has been the point man for the dispute over settlement construction, was expected in Israel at the end of this week or the beginning of next week, said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. Mitchell .
Despite conflicting pressures, Mr Netanyahu still hopes to work out a compromise deal that will satisfy the US and allow peace negotiations to resume.
Israeli officials have suggested they might halt some building in the West Bank in exchange for overtures from the Arab world.
But Khaled Mashaal, the exiled leader of the militant Islamic Hamas, said in Cairo: “This is a very dangerous equation. We warn against any Arab rush toward normalisation.”
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 settlement construction is stopped.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said yesterday 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 neighbourhoods built since Israel captured the area.