JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday that he would deliver a major policy address next week laying out his proposed road to Mideast peace, after coming under stiff U.S. pressure to freeze West Bank settlement construction and endorse Palestinian statehood.
Netanyahu offered no hint of what he might say. Bound by his hard-line coalition and his own ideology, the Israeli leader has resisted U.S. demands, deepening an unusually public face-off with Israel's most important ally.
"It must be understood: We seek peace with the Palestinians and with the states of the Arab world while trying to reach as much understanding as possible with the United States and our friends abroad," the Israeli leader said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.
"Next week, I will make an important policy speech in which I will present to the citizens of Israel our principles on achieving this peace and security," he said.
The Palestinians want the West Bank and Gaza Strip for their future state and say they will not renew peace talks until Israel agrees to freeze settlement construction and negotiate Palestinian statehood.
President Obama's administration hopes that halting settlement expansion would encourage the Arab world to make overtures toward Israel and improve U.S. relations with Arab states.
Israel has claimed that it reached unofficial agreements with former President George W. Bush's administration to keep building in some existing settlements.
It has also cited a 2004 letter signed by Bush saying any peace deal would recognize "new realities on the ground" in the West Bank, seen as a reference to main settlement blocks close to Israel.
Many of the understandings were reached between 2001 and 2003, according to Dov Weisglass, a top aide to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The Bush administration agreed to allow construction within the boundaries of current settlements, Weisglass told Army Radio.
But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said yesterday that the White House would not recognize past informal understandings. "That was never made a part of the official record of the negotiations," she said in comments on ABC-TV.
Netanyahu was "not fully prepared" for how adamant Obama would be about stopping all settlement construction during their May 18 meeting at the White House and since, Dan Schueftan, director of the National Security Studies Center at Haifa University, told Bloomberg News. Netanyahu will try to be nonconfrontational in response, Schueftan said.
The U.S. pressure is pushing Netanyahu into a difficult position between preserving Israel's crucial alliance with Washington and placating his coalition government, dominated by hard-liners.
Since Israel signed its first accord with the Palestinians in 1993, the West Bank settler population has more than doubled to nearly 300,000. An additional 180,000 Jews live in east Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as the capital of their future state.
Obama plans to dispatch his special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, to the region this week to try to break the impasse.
While fending off U.S. pressure for a settlement freeze, Israel has dismantled several checkpoints that hindered Palestinian movement. Yesterday, troops removed two checkpoints around the town of Qalqiliya, home to 50,000 Palestinians. Last week, Israel tore down two other checkpoints.