West Bank settlement of Maale Efrayim in the Jordan Valley..
(photo credit: REUTERS/ Baz Ratner)
The number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank could grow by as much as 50 percent by 2019, Israel's Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel said on Friday.
Palestinians blamed settlement expansions for the breakdown last month of US-mediated peace talks with Israel - a position supported in part by Washington, but rejected by the Israelis.
Ariel said the negotiations on Palestinian statehood were in their "dying throes" and predicted the settler population would spiral.
"I think that in five years there will be 550,000 or 600,000 Jews in Judea and Samaria, rather than 400,000 (now)," the minister said.
Ariel put the number of Israelis in east Jerusalem at between 300,000 and 350,000. Some 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas which, along with the Gaza Strip, Israel captured in 1967.
During the nine months of failed peacemaking, Ariel published tenders for settlement construction which were cited by the United States as having contributed
to the impasse by convincing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was not serious about reaching an accord.
US officials have also faulted Abbas for unilaterally signing 15 conventions meant to advance Palestinian independence and for entering a unity pact with Islamist Hamas rivals who control Gaza and spurn coexistence with Israel. Hosting US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel
in Jerusalem on Friday, Netanyahu put the onus for the deadlock on Abbas.
"One of the things we have found, unfortunately, is that our Palestinian neighbors are moving ahead in a pact with Hamas. The United States has designated Hamas rightly as a terrorist organization," he said.
"I think the Palestinians have to make a simple choice - a pact with Hamas, or peace with Israel. But they cannot have both."