January 25, 2010 - 1:00am

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday planted trees in West Bank settlements, in a move which he said sent a clear message that Israel would retain major settlement blocs under any peace deal with the Palestinians.

"The message is clear, we are here, and we will stay here. We plant and build. This is an inseparable part of the State of Israel forever," local news service Ynet quoted Netanyahu as saying at the Kfar Atzon settlement, part of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc.

He planted a tree to mark the tree-planting festival of Tu B' Shvat.

During the trip, which local daily The Jerusalem Post said was Netanyahu's first to West Bank settlements since he took office, the premier is also scheduled to plant trees in another two settlements.

Netanyahu set his foot on Jewish communities in the occupied Palestinian territory as settlers put up a strong resistance to a government-announced 10-month moratorium on new construction projects in West Bank settlements.

The tree-planting was widely seen as a bid to assuage the anger of settlers and the hardline right-wing political camp.

Israel has long been claiming that major settlement blocs in the West Bank would remain under Israeli control under any possible peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu met visiting U.S. envoy George Mitchell for the second time in four days to discuss ways to restart the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Yet no breakthrough was announced, and expectations were low for a resumption anytime soon.

The Netanyahu government has stressed that the construction suspension represented a rare opportunity for the Palestinians to sit down and start peace talks.

Yet the Palestinians stand firm with their demand that Israel completely halt Jewish construction both in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem before the Palestinians return to the negotiating table.

The international community does not recognize the legitimacy of Jewish settlements in the West Bank or in the Arab-dominated eastern section of the holy city, which the Palestinians claim to be the capital of their future state.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017