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Shift in stance on settlements could end up dislodging Netanyahu government

Bowing to US pressure to change policy has a high political price.

A Palestinian boy flies a homemade kite near the Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim in the occupied West Bank.
A Palestinian boy flies a homemade kite near the Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim in the occupied West Bank.

TEL AVIV // The much-anticipated speech of Barack Obama to the Muslim world tomorrow is spurring alarm in Israel that the US president would step up pressure on Israel to freeze settlement expansion, thereby undermining the stability of the country's fractious right-wing government. On his first visit to the Middle East since taking office, Mr Obama is expected to use his Cairo address to advance his new diplomatic push for solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, including by urging Israel to halt all its construction in the occupied West Bank, which Palestinians want as part of their future state.

"It is the settlements issue where the Obama administration has clearly set out to move the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a groove from which both a negotiating process and regional movement can begin," Yossi Alpher, a co-producer of Bitterlemons, an Israeli-Palestinian commentary website, wrote yesterday. But the prospect of escalating US demands on settlements is worrying Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, about the survival of his two-month-old government as he also faces competing pressures by pro-settler coalition partners to defy the Obama administration.

"The closer it gets to Obama's speech in Cairo, the more the panic in the surroundings of the prime minister is rising," wrote Ben Kaspit of Maariv, an Israeli newspaper. "Whoever peruses the media reports in Washington, the mood in Congress, the near-unanimous view by Israel's friends in the US against the policy of the Netanyahu government and the statements by White House spokesmen and by [the US secretary of state,] Hillary Clinton herself, understands that we have a problem that will not go away by itself."

Indeed, Mr Netanyahu appears to be in a bind. Two weeks after holding his first meeting with Mr Obama since both men came to power, he remains adamant in opposing US appeals for him to publicly endorse the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel and to cease all Jewish settlement construction. Analysts said that accepting such demands would not only run counter to Mr Netanyahu's own belief that a withdrawal from the West Bank would leave Israel vulnerable to militant attacks from the territory, it may also lead to a collision with the premier's predominantly right-wing coalition allies.

But the Israeli leader's resistance is placing him at odds with the United States and spurring speculation that it may cost his country key backing - either in the diplomatic, military or economic spheres - from a historically staunch ally that is now keen for Arab support. Tensions may mount amid newly disclosed, and potentially controversial, data yesterday that the number of Jewish homes in the West Bank could almost double if the government decides to build all the housing units that have already been approved.

According to new calculations by Yesh Din and Bimkom, two Israeli human rights groups, about 58,800 units have been constructed with governmental authorisation since Israel occupied the West Bank in the 1967 war. Over the years, the defence ministry has granted the green light for the building of an additional 46,500 homes within the existing master plans. Now, the groups said, the approved units need only wait for a political nod - which, according to recent indications, may not take long to arrive.

Although pledging that no new settlements would be built and that some small outposts would be dismantled, Mr Netanyahu has insisted that Israel will continue investing in the so-called natural growth of existing communities. On Monday, he called the US demand to freeze all construction as "unreasonable". The vague term of "natural growth" is used by Israeli officials to describe new building that meets the needs of growing settler families.

But critics claim that Mr Netanyahu is simply blunter about a policy that had also been adopted by previous governments. Dror Etkes of Yesh Din said: "Natural growth is just an excuse to build more. Israeli governments in the past 41 years have wanted to move as many Jews into the West Bank as possible to make sure there will be no Palestinian entity. And [Mr Netanyahu] is not willing to pay the political price to make a shift in policy."