Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu promised tobuild in the settlement cities of Ariel and Ma'aleh Adumim, as well asin Gush Etzion, only hours after US special envoy George Mitchell leftIsrael without showing any tangible signs that he had moved Israel orthe Palestinians closer to the negotiating table.
ThePalestinians have insisted they will only speak with Israel after ithas stopped building in West Bank settlements and in east Jerusalem.
After meeting with Mitchell on Sunday morning, Netanyahu toldthe cabinet, he "heard some interesting ideas for resuming thediplomatic process. We have consistently been interested in doing so,and I expressed my hope that these new ideas would make possible arenewal of the process."
In the afternoon, however, he reaffirmed his commitment to thesettlement blocs of Ariel, Ma'aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion when hecalled them an indisputable part of Israel.
In advance of Tu Bishvat, which marks the new yearfor trees, Netanyahu planted a tree both in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion in GushEtzion and in Ma'aleh Adumim. It was Netanyahu's first visit to WestBank settlements since he took office at the end of last March.
He also promised to plant a tree in Ariel.
Withthese trees, Netanyahu said he wanted to "send a clear message that weare here. We will stay here. We are planning and we are building."
He added that these three settlementconcentrations - Gush Etzion, Ma'aleh Adumim and Ariel - are an"indisputable part of Israel forever. This is an idea that is acceptedby the majority of Israelis" and is part of international agreements,Netanyahu said.
He spoke in the small museum dedicated to those the 240residents and defenders of the initial Gush Etzion bloc who weremassacred by the Arab forces during the 1948 War of Independence.
Outside the museum, he picked up a shovel, and planted a tree, together with the great-grandson of one of the massacre victims.
A white sign stuck in the dirt identified the sapling as the one which had been planted by Netanyahu.
A short distance away, several dozen people gathered by thepolice barricade. Some said they had come to show their support forNetanyahu while others said they were there to protest his visit.
In Ma'aleh Adumim, at a ceremony with city officials and theJewish National Fund, Netanyahu once again reaffirmed Israel's tieswith the settlement blocs and with Ma'aleh Adumim.
"We will build here as part of greater Jerusalem," said Netanyahu.
"I came here from Gush Etzion, which is Jerusalem's southerngate. Now we're in Ma'aleh Adumim which is Jerusalem's eastern gate.Close to Tu Bishvat I will plant a tree in Ariel, just as we planted acollege there which has turned into Ariel University."
His words come in the midst of a 10-month moratorium on newconstruction in the settlements, a move that has sown seeds of doubt inthe minds of many regarding his commitment to the settlement movement.
The heads of the three settlement concentrations, all of whomare members of the Likud party, have in the past attacked Netanyahu forinstituting the freeze in late November.
On Sunday, however, Ma'aleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel said hesaw Netanyahu's visit as a significant gesture, particularly given thathe made it on the same day that he met with Mitchell.
Gush Etzion Regional Council Chairman Shaul Goldstein said thatNetanyahu's words were very important, even though they did not go asfar as he would have liked.
"His statements were very powerful and meaningful - that we aregoing to stay here forever. It is a very clear statement to the world,"he said.
Although Netanyahu did not make it to Ariel on Sunday, the Knesset's Economic Affairs Committee paid the city a visit.
The committee's three-hour long visit included meetings withAriel Mayor Ron Nahman and government ministry representatives, as wellas a tour of the city, including the Ariel University Center of Samariaand the city's industrial areas.
"Ariel will be under Israeli authority as part of anyfinal-status arrangement. Its location is strategic for Israel'ssecurity," said committee chairman Ophir Akunis (Likud), considered oneof Netanyahu's closest supporters in the Likud Knesset faction.
"We came here in order to help the city, also in this period ofmoratorium, in areas including transportation, infrastructure, industryand trade," Akunis added. "The decision to turn the college into auniversity is also part of the vision of Ariel as a city and withIsrael forever."
Akunis headed the Knesset delegation, which held a symboliccommittee meeting in Ariel, on the subject of "Opportunities and risksin developing a city in Samaria."
With the exception of MK Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich (Kadima), whoholds an alternate seat on the committee, only coalition members of theparticipated in the visit.
The Palestinians reacted strongly to Netanyahu's gestures toward the settlements on Sunday.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's aide Nabil Abu Rudeineh said it undermined peace prospects.
"This is an unacceptable act that destroys all the efforts beingexerted by Senator Mitchell in order to bring the parties back to thenegotiating table," he said.
Contacts with the Americans would continue, he said, but a return to negotiations with Israel appeared unlikely anytime soon.
In a meeting with Mitchell Friday, Abbas stood firm by his demand for a total settlement freeze.
Still at the cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu struck a hopeful note that progress could be made with the Palestinians.
He said that if the Palestinians could show interest in newideas proposed by Mitchell, "then we will find ourselves in adiplomatic process, and that is something important to them and to us,and to all who strive to advance peace and reconciliation in ourregion."
Netanyahu did not reveal Mitchell's new ideas at the cabinet meting, and his office was not forthcoming.
One proposal Mitchell is believed to have discussed waslaunching the talks under the umbrella of a regional peace conference,which would include Lebanon and Syria as well, and which all sideswould attend without any preconditions.
This would be a face-saving way for Abbas toenter talks, even though Israel did not agree to his condition of atotal construction halt beyond the Green Line, including eastJerusalem. Afterfour days in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Mitchell travelledto Lebanon and Syria before going to Jordan, and this idea is not onethat is believed to have picked up a lot of traction in thosecountries.
This would be a face-saving way for Abbas toenter talks, even though Israel did not agree to his condition of atotal construction halt beyond the Green Line, including eastJerusalem.
Afterfour days in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Mitchell travelledto Lebanon and Syria before going to Jordan, and this idea is not onethat is believed to have picked up a lot of traction in thosecountries.
Abdullah, according to Jordan's Petra news agency, called inhis meeting with Mitchell for a "more vigorous US effort to launchserious and time-linked peace negotiations to achieve the two-statesolution within a comprehensive regional context."
The king, according to the report, also told Mitchell of theneed for continued international support of the Palestinian Authorityand Abbas.
AP contributed to this report.