Right-wing Likud backs more settlements in West Bank
Israel's right-wing Likud party backed expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank on Thursday with hopes to begin construction in September. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu imposed a 10-month construction ban last fall.
AFP - Israel's right-wing Likud party backed on Thursday the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, with an eye to a building spurt when a building moratorium expires in September.
"The central committee of the Likud has unanimously approved the pursuit of construction and development in Judea and Samaria," said a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's party, using the Biblical name for the West Bank.
Some 2,500 members of the policy-making central committee debated the motion which "supports building and developing throughout the Land of Israel including... Greater Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria."
Judea and Samaria are the biblical names for the West Bank. Greater Jerusalem includes mainly Arab east Jerusalem, which was occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed immediately after.
The debate was proposed by legislator Danny Danon in a bid to emphasise the party's wholehearted support for a return to construction when the freeze expires in September, although neither the moratorium nor the deadline was mentioned in the wording of the draft resolution.
"The essence of today's decision is that the Likud movement is saying to its leaders, Knesset members, ministers, the prime minister: 'We are committed to building in Judea and Samaria on September 26' when the (freeze) order runs out and we resume building," he told Israel's educational TV channel.
Netanyahu reluctantly imposed a 10-month ban on new building in November following months of US demands for gestures to help relaunch peace talks with the Palestinians suspended during the 2008-2009 Gaza war.
But the Palestinians dismissed the move as insufficient because it did not include projects already under way, public buildings or east Jerusalem, which they claim as the capital of their future state.
Israel's Peace Now group, which monitors settlements, said last week that so many projects were approved before the "freeze" began that it has has done little to slow the expansion of settlements.
Likud central committee chairman Moshe Kahlon, who is also communications minister, confirmed that the motion did not make direct reference to the freeze or its expiry date.
"The debate today is not about the freeze," he told the radio. Netanyahu would not attend the committee session in Tel Aviv, Kahlon said, insisting that his absence had no political significance.
Likud MP Ofir Akonis told public radio the motion endorsing settlement expansion was so popular that Netanyahu did not need to attend the meeting, while stressing that the premier did support the party's position.
On July 6 Netanyahu will meet President Barack Obama in the White House. Washington has repeatedly criticised West Bank settlement as an obstacle to the peace process.
"The last thing (Netanyahu) needs is that two weeks before the meeting with US President Barack Obama, he goes to a meeting of his own party which seeks to oblige him to build in Judea and Samaria," the radio station's political reporter said.
The Palestinians grudgingly agreed to relaunch indirect US-brokered peace talks with Israel in May, but have said they will not move to direct negotiations without a complete settlement freeze including in east Jerusalem.
The presence of nearly half a million Israelis in more than 120 settlements scattered across the West Bank and east Jerusalem has long been seen as a major threat to the establishment of an independent, viable Palestinian state.