JERUSALEM: Starts on new settlement building in the occupied West Bank increased by 123.7 percent last year, Israeli government data showed on Monday.
The release by the Central Bureau of Statistics came hours before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to meet at the White House with President Barack Obama, who has strongly criticized settlement construction.
“We have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time,” Obama said in an interview with Bloomberg View columnist Jeffrey Goldberg published on Sunday.
“If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.”
The Palestinians have long viewed Israeli settlement construction as a major obstacle to peace talks, arguing Israel is actively building on land that should be part of their future state.
Monday’s data showed work began on 2,534 settlement housing units in 2013 compared with 1,133 the year before.
“It’s official, the Netanyahu government is committed to only one thing: building settlements. It shows the lack of commitment to negotiations,” said Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now.
Obama is expected to try to persuade Netanyahu to accept a U.S. framework for final peace talks with the Palestinians, but the Israeli leader has vowed to resist all “pressures.”
Washington brought Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table in July following a three-year hiatus, after the last talks broke down in 2010 over the settlements dispute.
Unconfirmed reports suggest Washington will demand a partial freeze on construction in isolated settlements outside the major West Bank blocs that Israel hopes to retain in any peace deal.
But Netanyahu has pledged not to succumb to pressure for concessions which in his view run contrary to Israel’s needs.
“In order to reach an agreement, we must insist on our vital interests. I have proven I do so, in the face of all the pressures and upheavals, and I will continue to do so here as well,” he said upon landing in Washington on Sunday.
One of Netanyahu’s hard-line coalition partners said on Sunday that Israel would withstand any international repercussions rather than take risks.
“We do not have to do anything that endangers Israel’s security,” Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the far-right Jewish Home party, told Israeli army radio in response to Obama’s comments.
A settlement bloc is an area where clusters of settlements have been established in relatively close proximity to one another, in which the majority of the West Bank’s 367,000 settlers currently live.
Settlement building is illegal under international law.