JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank were not an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians in an interview published Friday, testing ties between Washington and its main Middle East ally.
The expansion of settlements in the West Bank has been among the most contentious issues between Israel, the Palestinians and the international community for decades. It has continued despite repeated calls for construction to stop from allies, including the United States.
Most countries deem such construction as illegal under international law, and the Palestinians say the expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied land undermines their bid for a viable state.
In an interview with Sky News released on Friday, Netanyahu said it was “not true” that the settlements were a hurdle to peace, adding that the recent return of settlers to an evacuated settlement did not violate any commitments to the Biden administration.
“The idea that the presence of Jews in their ancestral homeland, which has been our homeland for the last 3,000 years, that Jews should not live there… I think that’s the obstacle to peace,” said Netanyahu.
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The West Bank is among territories Israel occupied in a 1967 Middle East war where Palestinians exercise limited self-governance under decades of Israeli military rule.
According to a report by the UN Human Rights Committee, just under 700,000 settlers live in 279 settlements across the West Bank and East Jerusalem, up from 520,000 in 2012.
Since entering office in January, Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition has approved the promotion of more than 7,000 new housing units, most deep in the West Bank, and amended a law that cleared the way for settlers to return to four settlements that had been evacuated.
“Israel attempts to mislead and deceive the public, as if the settlements are not established on Palestinian land belonging to the Palestinian people,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told Reuters.
“If this government seeks a lasting peace, it must recognize international resolutions that are based on the two-state solution.”
In the Sky News interview, Netanyahu also said that establishing diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia would “change history”.
On Iran, he said diplomatic efforts to stop Tehran from developing nuclear capabilities can only work when coupled with a credible military threat, and that Israel will do “whatever we need to defend ourselves”.
(Reporting by Henriette Chacar; Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Editing by Nick Macfie)
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