Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday rebuffed U.S. calls to impose a freeze on all settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, setting the stage for friction with President Barack Obama.
"We do not intend to build any new settlements, but it wouldn't be fair to ban construction to meet the needs of natural growth or for there to be an outright construction ban," Netanyahu told his cabinet, according to officials.
The note of defiance came less than a week after Netanyahu held talks in Washington with Obama, who wants Israel to halt all settlement activity, including natural growth, as called for under a long-stalled peace "road map".
Netanyahu's comments reaffirmed a position he took in his bid for the premiership in a February election. By natural growth, Israel refers to construction within the boundaries of existing settlements to accommodate growing families.
Obama was expected to prod Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to resume long-stalled peace talks during a major speech in Cairo early next month.
Abbas has ruled out restarting those talks until Netanyahu, whose right-leaning government took office on March 31, commits to a two-state solution and halts settlement expansion.
Obama has surprised Israel with his activism on the settlement issue, but it is unclear how much pressure he will put on Netanyahu to freeze construction entirely, Israeli and Western officials said. Former President George W. Bush called for a freeze but building continued
largely unchecked, Israeli anti-settlement advocacy groups say.
Netanyah is doing what he should do -- protecting his country. It's not a good sign that early in his presidency Obama is telling Netanyahu to withdraw. Iran will be emboldened.