Netanyahu faces Right-wing protests over settlement freeze

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, faced mounting pressure from right-wing activists and settlers, who are furious about his decision to impose a partial construction freeze on Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

In a bid to calm the tensions, which have triggered violent clashes between settlers and Israeli police, Mr Netanyahu met leaders of the settler movement. A government spokesman said the prime minister took note of their complaints but insisted that the freeze had to be respected.

This did little to blunt the anger of his critics, who vowed to continue building in the settlements regardless of the government’s order.

Yisrael Katz, the head of the far-right National Religious Party, promised an "uncompromising struggle", and said settlers were "taking off the gloves against prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's anti-Semitic and racist decree".

Danny Dayan, the chairman of the Yesha Council, which represents the settlers' interests, said: "We prefer to keep building with the government, but if it turns out to be a weak and submissive government we shall build without it." His words were echoed by David Wilder, a spokesman for the Jewish settlers in the Palestinian city of Hebron, who said: "The reaction [of settlers] is going to be a boomerang. We are going to build more than ever from now on."

The protests – which emanate from a key part of Mr Netanyahu's right-wing constituency – do not yet amount to a serious threat to the prime minister. Mr Netanyahu can continue to rely on the support of his own Likud party, which endorsed the freeze earlier this week, while opinion polls show the majority of Israelis also approve of his policies.

In diplomatic terms, the protests by the settler movement may prove helpful to Mr Netanyahu. Both the Palestinians and the US administration say they want Israel to freeze all settlement activity, including in occupied East Jerusalem – a step that Mr Netanyahu has rejected. The prime minister can now argue that even the limited steps he has taken so far have whipped up a political storm, meaning that he cannot be expected to go further without Palestinian concessions.

Mr Netanyahu announced a 10-month freeze on new residential construction starts in the West Bank settlements last week, saying this step was designed to re-launch peace talks with the Palestinians. However, the order did not include public buildings and some 3,000 construction projects that are already underway. Most importantly, it did not cover occupied East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel after the 1967 war but which the Palestinians regard as the capital of their future state.

The growth of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank is widely seen as a key stumbling block to achieving a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

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