Israel has played down comments from the White House cautioning that new settlement building "may not be helpful" to the peace process. Israelis still expect US President Donald Trump to be more pro-Israel than Obama.
Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely appeared to ignore Washington's latest criticism of Israel's settlement building in the occupied territories, in a statement on Friday.
"The White House itself holds that the settlements are not an obstacle to peace and they never have been," Hotovely said, adding that, "It must be concluded, therefore, that expansion of construction is not the problem."
Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, insisted the comments by White House spokesman Sean Spicer did not amount to "a U-turn" in US support for Israeli settlements.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters on Thursday that while the Trump administration didn't think the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, "the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful."
Israeli officials insist the Trump administration has yet to work out its Middle East policy and is unlikely to do so until Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Washington on February 15.
The new US leader has signaled a softer stance on settlement construction than his predecessor, Barack Obama, and Netanyahu has been quick to play up to that new support.
Analysts said that at one level, the comments appeared to rein in the Israeli leader, who has announced settlement expansion plans since Trump took office. But on closer reading, the statement was a softening of policy from the Obama administration and even that of Republican former President George W. Bush.
New construction ordered
Israel has now approved more than 6,000 homes for settlers on disputed land since January 19, and earlier this week. Netanyahu pledged to build a new settlement for the first time in 25 years.
The settlements, which most UN members believe are illegal, are at the heart of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and the refusal to demolish them is seen as a major threat to a two-state solution to the conflict, which would see the introduction of an independent Palestine.
The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem along with the Gaza Strip - areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war - for their state.
Israeli nationalists, including Netanyahu, defend the settlements - which house about 600,000 Jewish settlers - on both security grounds and historic religious ties to the land.
Shortly before Obama stepped down, his administration refused to veto a UN resolution denouncing Israel's settlement program, leading to a new low point in US-Israel relations.
mm/sms (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)