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With West focused on Iran, Netanyahu moves to expand Israeli settlements

Last week, the prime minister allowed police to evict settlers from an Arab house in Hebron. But he also asked his government to authorize three illegal outposts in the West Bank.

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A construction vehicle works on a construction site in a Jewish settlement near Jerusalem known to Israelis as Har Homa in this 2010 file photo.

Ammar Awad/REUTERS/File

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is moving to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank at a time when international attention is focused elsewhere, with President Obama gearing up for reelection and the West targeting Iran's nuclear program.

Last week, the Netanyahu government took a variety of steps that, taken together, amount to a significant strengthening of Israel's hold in the West Bank, the biblically resonant territory occupied in 1967, which Palestinians claim as the heartland for their future state.

For Netanyahu, who heads a right-wing coalition with a strong pro-settler contingent, it was a delicate dance of one small step back and six larger steps forward for settlements.

On April 4, the prime minister backed the evacuation of a house illegally occupied by settlers in the flashpoint city of Hebron, endorsing his attorney general's position that there was no legal argument for approving the settler takeover. That angered some among his hard-line constituency, including Danny Dayan, head of the Yesha Council that represents 300,000 settlers. ''It is intolerable that Jews cannot exercise their property rights simply because they are Jews,'' Dayan says.

To assuage this anger, Mr. Netanyahu declared the same day that he instructed the government to authorize three illegal outposts in the West Bank, despite Israel's having committed itself in the 2003 international peace blueprint, known as the "road map," to dismantle them. Hours later, tenders were issued for building a new neighborhood of 800 units in Har Homa, a settlement in annexed East Jerusalem, and for 180 new units in Givat Zeev, north of Jerusalem.

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