WASHINGTON — Rebuffing Israel on a key Mideast negotiating issue, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that the Obama administration wants a complete halt in the growth of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory, with no exceptions.
President Obama "wants to see a stop to settlements -- not some settlements, not outposts, not natural-growth exceptions," Clinton said.
Growth in settlements built in the West Bank has become a key point of disagreement between the United States and Israel as the administration assembles its plan to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
U.S. officials believe that a complete Israeli halt to settlement growth could lead to early concessions from moderate Arab nations and put new momentum behind the peace effort.
But Israeli officials maintain that existing settlements should be allowed to expand to accommodate the natural growth of Jewish families.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is to meet with Obama today at the White House, considers a complete settlement freeze a precondition for new talks. Abbas, who is politically weak and needs a concession to bolster his position, is expected to emphasize this point at the Washington meeting.
U.S. and Israeli officials have been debating the issue in meetings since conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Obama last week.
The administration has communicated its position "very clearly, not only to the Israelis, but to the Palestinians and others, and we intend to press that point," Clinton said in an appearance at the State Department with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
Israeli officials are willing to limit growth in outlying settlements, but contend that expansion should be allowed in larger settlements, closer to Israeli territory, that probably would be annexed to Israel in any final settlement.
Netanyahu reiterated that stand Sunday in a meeting of his Cabinet, saying there must be an allowance for "natural growth," the vaguely defined term Israel uses for boosting population in the settlements, which are nearly universally seen as a violation of international law.
"We will not build new settlements," he said, according to remarks released by his office.
"But it is not fair not to provide a solution to natural growth."
Israeli officials have said they would disassemble 26 small so-called outposts in an effort to vent pressure from Washington on natural growth in the bigger areas. In all, about 300,000 Israelis live in about 120 settlements.
Israeli officials have dismantled three outposts in the last week to underscore their willingness to end what they regard as illegal construction.
Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem contributed to this report.