Published on
The Times Online/UK

Israel Rebuffs Hillary Clinton's Call for Halt in West Bank Settlements

James Hider in Jerusalem

A Jewish boy sets an Israeli national flag as settlers attempt to establish an unauthorised outpost near the Palestinian village of Sair in the West Bank, 2007. Israel dismissed a blunt US call for a halt to all Jewish settlement building on occupied Palestinian land, the latest sign Washington is hardening its tone towards its close ally. (AFP/File/Menahem Kahana)

Israel’s new right-wing government was set for its first stand-off with the
Obama Administration today, after it openly rebuffed a call from Washington
to a total freeze on all Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, called last night for Israel halt
all construction of settlements, considered illegal by the international
community as they are civilian communities built on war-conquered land.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the hawkish Israeli Prime Minister, offered last week in
Washington to dismantle new settlement outposts in return for being allowed
to continue “natural growth” on the established West Bank communities.

But Mrs Clinton made a surprisingly curt rebuttal to the proposal, insisting
that Mr Obama – who travels to Cairo next week to try and heal strained US
ties with the Muslim world – wanted a blanket ban on settlement growth.

“He wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts,
not 'natural growth' exceptions,” she said. “We think it is in the best
interests (of the peace process) that settlement expansion cease. That is
our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly. ... And we
intend to press that point.”

A spokesman for Mr Netanyahu – who clashed with then president Bill Clinton
when he was prime minister in the late 1990s – said that permission would be
given to continue construction in existing settlements, some of which are
sprawling towns built in the four decades that Israel has occupied the West

“Normal life in those communities must be allowed to continue,” said spokesman
Mark Regev.

Mr Netanyahu refuses to endorse the concept of an independent Palestinian
state, but the US President insists that a two-state solution is the only
way ahead.

The Israeli coalition, made up mainly of right-wing, nationalist and religious
parties, but also including the centre-left Labour Party which holds the
defence portfolio, came to power earlier this year just as Mr Obama came to
office. Observers have been expecting it to clash with Washington, Israel’s
key strategic ally, ever since.

The spat between the two allies came as Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian
president, headed to Washington to discuss US efforts to revive the peace
process with Mr Obama.

Top of his demands is the freeze of all settlement growth, which Palestinians
see as a major obstacle to peace. Israeli right-wingers warn that a
Palestinian state could lead to an Islamist take over of the West Bank, as
happened in Gaza two years ago.

Religious settlers, who often make the most determined builders of
unauthorised outposts, argue that the land was promised to them by god.

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