Netanyahu vows to expand settlements

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Sunday to expand illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The prime minister told his cabinet that Israel will not build any new settlements in the West Bank but that existing settlements must be allowed to expand for what he calls 'natural growth' in their populations.

The announcement was a snub to the US government, which urged Israel to halt its theft of Palestinian land during Mr Netanyahu's visit last week.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak had earlier said that nearly two dozen wildcat settlement outposts in the West Bank would be torn down and warned that settlers would be evicted forcefully if they resisted.

Other members of Mr Netanyahu's cabinet objected to immediate action on the outposts.

Settlers have been erecting enclaves - many of them no more than a few tents or mobile homes - since the early 1990s to extend their reach across the West Bank.

Although these outposts were not officially sanctioned by the government, many officials were complicit in their founding, a government-commissioned report has charged.

Mr Barak told reporters before the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday that he would demolish 22 outposts that Israel had promised to dismantle under the 2003 US-devised 'road map' peace plan.

Mr Barak has repeatedly made similar pledges since he became defence minister two years ago. He gave no timeline for the promised demolitions.

Mr Barak is a member of the Labour party, currently in a coalition government with Mr Netanyahu's right-wing Likud Party and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman's far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party.

There are 121 illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, guarded by Israeli troops and home to 280,000 extremist settlers.

The settlements compartmentalise Palestinian towns and farms into isolated cantonments, making life near impossible for the population.

During Mr Netanyahu's trip to Washington last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that all settlement construction must end, including so-called natural growth.

Syrian President Bashar Assad said on Saturday that Israel was the greatest obstacle to peace in the Middle East.

He said thjat Syria considered peace as a 'strategic goal that must be reached one day,' but blamed Israel for the lack of progress since the start of the internationally sponsored peace process in the early 1990s.