Israel vows to continue developing settlements
JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to continue "developing" settlements following reports of US pressure ahead of a fresh round of Palestinian prisoner releases due later this month.
"We will not stop, even for a moment, building our country and becoming stronger, and developing... the settlement enterprise," he told members of his rightwing Likud faction in remarks broadcast on army radio on Thursday.
Netanyahu's comments, made late on Wednesday, came as US Secretary of State John Kerry fights for the survival of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which were launched in late July but have been severely strained by Israel's persistent settlement drive.
Late on Wednesday, the Haaretz news website reported that Kerry and other senior US officials had urged Netanyahu and his cabinet "to exercise maximum restraint in announcing new construction," in tandem with the release on December 29 of 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners.
Two previous rounds of prisoner releases in August and October have been accompanied by Israeli announcements of fresh construction on land the Palestinians want for a future state, sparking deep anger in Ramallah.
But in his remarks on Wednesday, Netanyahu appeared to rebuff any pressure from Washington, blaming the absence of any peace agreement on the Palestinians' refusal to recognise Israel as the Jewish state.
"I know that people keep telling us that there is no peace because of the settlements, because of our presence in Judaea and Samaria and it's not true," the premier said, using the biblical term for the West Bank.
"There is no peace because of the ongoing opposition to the existence of a national Jewish homeland within any borders, and we have the right to a state just like any other people."