JERUSALEM, Dec. 3 (JTA) — Responding to worldwide criticism of Israeli settlement policy, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied this week that his government had decided to build new settlements in the territories. At the same time, Netanyahu affirmed his government’s support for expanding existing settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, adding that the rate of building under his administration did not even approach that of the previous government. “Under the Labor government, the settlements expanded by 50 percent, the greatest expansion of the settlements in Israel’s history,” Netanyahu told a news conference Tuesday in Lisbon, where he was attending a meeting of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe. “We are nowhere near that rate, and I don’t say that happily,” he said. “I think we would like to change that as well. I’m talking about existing settlements, not new ones.” The Netanyahu government has approved the construction of thousands of apartments in existing settlements, sparking anger from the Palestinian Authority and Arab states. The United States has voiced disapproval of the expansion plans. However, construction has not yet begun, a fact that has generated further protests by Jewish settlers. Netanyahu attributed the delay in expanding settlements to budgetary constraints. The government is trying to slash more than $2 billion from the 1997 budget, in an effort to bring the deficit under control. Netanyahu’s remarks came as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators continued talks on implementing a long-delayed redeployment of Israeli forces in Hebron and turnover of most of the West Bank town to Palestinian self-rule. The negotiations have dragged on for two months, with each side blaming the other for delaying an agreement. Netanyahu said Tuesday that the agreement was 98 percent complete, and that the Palestinians were holding up a signing. “There are a few technical issues. They relate to security issues primarily, but none that are not resolvable,” Netanyahu said. “There is nothing that remains on the table that cannot be resolved if there is a decision by the Palestinians to resolve it.” Earlier in the week there was speculation about a possible meeting between Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Lisbon. But Arafat decided not to attend the conference. Palestinian officials denied reports that they had made any overtures for such a meeting, and reiterated their claim that it was Israel’s attempts to renegotiate the terms of the Hebron agreement reached with the previous Labor government that was holding up a signing. An agreement on Hebron would open the way to final status talks that will address, among other issues, Israeli settlements, Jerusalem and Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu, who opposes a Palestinian state, said he believed a permanent settlement with the Palestinians must consist of some kind of medium between self-determination and security concerns for Israel. “I think the crucial test before us, is fashioning a third way between subjugation and unbridled self-determination. What we are going to propose in final settlement [will] balance the Palestinian need for freedom, and our need for security.”
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