MAALEH ADUMIM, West Bank (AP) — Israel's prime minister on Tuesday pledged to build thousands of new homes in one of the West Bank's biggest Jewish settlements and annex it to Israel.
The comments drew an angry condemnation from the Palestinians and created a new test for the Trump administration, which has been working for over eight months to restart peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
Benjamin Netanyahu said during a visit to Maaleh Adumim that he was announcing a period of "enhanced development."
"We will build thousands of housing units here," he said. "We will add the industrial zone needed and the expansion needed to allow for the advanced development of this place."
"This place will be part of the state of Israel," he added.
Netanyahu gave no specifics or timetable, suggesting that his comments may have been playing to his nationalistic base.
Facing a series of corruption investigations, Netanyahu has stepped up his hard-line rhetoric in recent weeks with attacks on the media and appeals to his core supporters. This has included two other speeches in West Bank settlements where he vowed never to uproot any of them.
The Palestinians seek the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as part of a future independent state and consider all of Israel's settlements to be illegal — a position that is widely shared by the international community. Israel says the settlements' fate should be resolved through negotiations.
Maaleh Adumim is a settlement of roughly 40,000 people just east of Jerusalem. It is considered strategic because it lies in the center of the West Bank, and making it part of Israel could greatly hinder Palestinian statehood aspirations.
Nabil Shaath, a senior adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called Netanyahu's comments "totally unacceptable."
"This is an attempt by Netanyahu to destroy the two-state solution and a clear refusal of any attempt to revive the peace process, especially by the United States," he said.
President Donald Trump has taken a softer line toward the settlements than his predecessors, and his key advisers, including son-in-law Jared Kushner and ambassador to Israel David Friedman, have longstanding ties to the settlement movement. Even so, Trump has still asked Israel to show restraint.
Early this year, Israel shelved a proposal to annex Maaleh Adumim under apparent pressure from the White House. Netanyahu's comments indicated that he may be preparing to revive the proposal.
Trump's Mideast envoy, Jason Greenblatt, has been in the region meeting with the sides as part of his effort to restart talks.
A White House official reiterated Trump's position that "unrestrained settlement activity does not advance the prospect for peace," but past demands for a settlement freeze also have not helped advance talks.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said Greenblatt's delegation "is focused on its substantive talks toward an enduring peace deal."
The official did not address Netanyahu's call for annexation of occupied territory.
Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.