Israel has obligation to halt West Bank settlement growth: Obama

Israel has an obligation to freeze expansion of settlements in the West Bank, U.S. President Barack Obama said Thursday after a meeting in Washington with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

U.S. president also demands Palestinians rein in anti-Israel violence, incitement

Jewish settlers wash cement off their feet after laying the foundation of a new building on Thursday after Israeli troops razed other structures last week in the West Bank outpost of Maoz Esther, a hilltop site northeast of Ramallah. ((Tara Todras-Whitehill/Associated Press))

Israel has an obligation to freeze expansion of settlements in the West Bank, U.S. President Barack Obama said Thursday after a meeting in Washington with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Obama said Palestinians must also meet their obligations under the U.S.-shaped road map by reining in anti-Israel sentiment, along with incitement to violence in the territory's schools and mosques.

The U.S. president, whose meeting with Abbas in the White House comes just 10 days after a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also expressed confidence that the Israeli government will recognize that a two-state solution is in the interests of its security.

"We are a stalwart ally of Israel and it is in our interest to ensure Israel is safe and secure," Obama said at a joint news conference with Abbas in the Oval Office.

"It is our belief the best way to achieve that is to create the conditions on the ground and set the stage for a Palestinian state as well."

Since taking office in late March, Netanyahu has refused to endorse a two-state solution and has also stated support for natural-growth construction in existing settlements. 

On Wednesday, Netanyahu said he's willing to take "concrete steps" to make peace with the Palestinians, and urged Arab countries to normalize ties with Israel.

Earlier Thursday, Israel said it will press ahead with some construction on settlements in the West Bank, rebuffing an emphatic demand by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the day before that all such building stop.

Palestinian coalition must recognize Israel: Obama

Speaking in Arabic through a translator, Abbas said the Palestinians remain "fully committed to all road map obligations from A to Z."

Obama added U.S. officials have seen "great progress" in terms of security improvements in the West Bank, while he said he understands Abbas is under "enormous pressure" to bring about a unity government with Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. 

The president also said he was "impressed and appreciative" that Abbas has insisted any Palestinian coalition government must recognize the principles laid out by the so-called Mideast Quartet — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

"In the absence of a recognition of Israel and a commitment to peace and a commitment to previous agreements that have already been made, it would be very hard to see any possibility of peace over the long term," Obama said.

Hamas, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 and whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, has been shunned by the international community for its refusal to recognize Israel or renounce violence. 

Last December, the Israeli military launched a blistering 22-day offensive against the Islamist group in Gaza to curb rocket attacks from the coastal territory into southern Israel.

Israel: U.S. must allow for 'normal life' on settlements 

Clinton said it was clear that Obama's demand for a freeze includes the "natural growth" that Israel insists is needed to accommodate expanding families in existing settlements.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists 'natural growth' is needed to accommodate expanding families in existing West Bank settlements. ((Ben Curtis/Associated Press))

"He wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not 'natural growth' exceptions," Clinton said.

"We think it is in the best interests [of the peace process] that settlement expansion cease. That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly.… And we intend to press that point."

Responding Thursday, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said the future of the settlements would be decided only in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Until then, Regev said "normal life in those communities must be allowed to continue." He confirmed this meant some construction will continue in existing settlements.

Regev said Israel has pledged to build no new settlements in the West Bank and to remove so-called "outposts" — or expanded compounds built off existing settlements without authorization from the Israeli government.

In recent years, Israeli troops have occasionally dismantled some of the outposts, only for settlers to begin rebuilding the structures the next day.

Obama is widely expected to announce details of his administration's Mideast peace plan during a visit to Egypt next month.

Abbas has refused to restart peace negotiations with Israel until Netanyahu's government orders a freeze on all settlement construction on the lands the Palestinians aspire to have for a future state.

More than 280,000 Jewish settlers live among more than two million Palestinians in the West Bank, which is referred to by some Jewish religious and Israeli nationalist groups as the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria.

Palestinian officials and Israeli peace groups, along with much of the international community, have decried the construction and expansion of all settlements in the West Bank as illegal under international law — although Israel disputes this.

With files from The Associated Press