Netanyahu's promise not to bulldoze settlements sparks backlash

The chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says the Israeli prime minister's comments will hurt peace process.

TEL AVIV // A top Palestinian yesterday blasted a promise by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to keep Jewish settlements in the West Bank should he win a third term next week.

Mr Netanyahu told the right-leaning newspaper Maariv in an interview published yesterday no Israeli settlers would be evacuated from occupied territory in the West Bank.

"The days when bulldozers uprooted Jews are behind us …" he said. "We haven't uprooted any settlements, we have expanded them."

Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator, said the comments clouded bids to resume peace talks that stalled in September 2010.

"That's an Israeli decision to undermine any efforts to revive the peace process," he said.

"He is telling the world that he is determined to undermine the two-state solution and that he is choosing settlements over peace."

Mr Netanyahu's comments appeared to be a bid to draw more pro-settler, right-wing voters to his hardline Likud party, which polls show may be losing some of its support.

But they are also likely to further antagonise Israel's most powerful, the US.

Other allies abroad are also increasingly condemning his government's settlement expansion plans in the West Bank.

Mr Netanyahu is viewed by many on the Israeli right as more charismatic and experienced than his rivals - and more capable of facing what they perceive as major threats to country's security, especially from Iran's nuclear ambitions.

But polls show he may be losing backing to the far-right Habayit Hayeudi party, which is drawing pro-settler supporters with plans to annex most of the West Bank and deny the Palestinians statehood.

Two opinion polls published yesterday showed Likud was still likely to gain far more support than other parties, but would win fewer seats in Israel's 120-member parliament than previously estimated.

The surveys in the liberal Haaretz newspaper and in the centrist-leaning Yediot Ahronoth showed Likud winning 32 seats - far less than the some 50-odd seats the party had hoped for after it linked its electoral ticket with the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party last year.

Likud occupies 27 seats and Yisrael Beiteinu holds 15.

The polls, the last that can be published before Tuesday's election according to Israeli law, also suggested the right-wing bloc would control 63 seats in the next parliament, a razor-thin majority.

Mr Netanyahu suggested in yesterday's newspaper interview that Likud would be better equipped to face international pressure against settlement construction should his party show a strong result in the ballot.

"The entire world will look at only one thing after the election, whether the ruling party has shrunk or grown. If we grow, that will give us the strength to face pressures," he said.

About 500,000 Jewish settlers live in more than 100 settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, areas Israel occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The international community considers these settlements illega.

Mr Netanyahu has officially endorsed Palestinian statehood during a much-vaunted speech in 2009, the year he came to power for the second time, but has not repeated it in his campaign over recent months.

In his second premiership - his first was between 1996 and 1999 - he has laid vast plans for settlement expansion, including in the controversial E1 area outside the Palestinian suburbs of East Jerusalem.

A report this week by the Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now said that under Mr Netanyahu's government, Israel has allowed a record number of settlement construction since a 10-month moratorium on settlement building expired two years ago.

Last year, the government issued the highest number of construction tenders in a decade, it said.

The report also said that isolated settlements - outside the large settlement blocs that Israel has insisted it would keep under any peace settlement - accounted for 40 per cent of all new constructions during Mr Netanyahu's premiership.