JERUSALEM: Israeli settlers warned on Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will face his "day of judgment" if he caves in to pressure to further limit settlement construction in the West Bank.
"This is not a time to mince words as this is literally a day of judgment for our prime minister and government," said Naftali Bennett, head of Yesha, the main association of settlers in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory.
Yesha warned in a letter to Netanyahu of "serious diplomatic and political implications" if he reneges on his promise to resume issuing building permits for settler homes when a partial, 10-month moratorium ends on September 26.
The issue of settlements is one of the thorniest in the Middle East peace process and is expected to figure prominently at the new round of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations starting in Washington on September 2.
The Palestinians initially insisted they would not sit at the negotiating table without guarantees the moratorium on building permits be extended.
But no such guarantee has been made public in statements from the US administration and the Middle East peace Quartet when they announced the new round of negotiations.
Netanyahu faces Palestinian and international calls for a freeze on settlement construction.
But the leader of a centre-right ruling coalition is also under strong pressure, including from within his own Likud party, to clear the way for construction of more settler homes in the West Bank.
MP Zeev Elkin, who heads the Likud parliamentary group, told public radio on Wednesday that "construction must restart in September since we have to be credible abroad and to ourselves."
And Bennett insisted Netanyahu "needs to appreciate that we will stand firm on our commitments to strengthen and expand the communities and we cannot bend to any international pressure.
"These upcoming negotiations promise to be another futile display of diplomacy but we must not allow citizens of Israel to become the scapegoats in this process," he said.
But a similar relaunch of US-brokered negotiations in 2007 produced no visible results by the time the talks collapsed when Israel’s military launched a devastating 22-day offensive on the Gaza Strip just over a year later.
The new round of talks between Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas follow several months of arduous US mediation.
Efforts to put the peace process back on track suffered a major setback in March when Israel announced the construction of 1,600 new settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem, just as US Vice President Joe Biden was visiting the region.
Indirect talks through the United States eventually started on May 9 with the stated aim of moving on to face-to-face negotiations within four months.
"If we are not given the legal right to actually build homes for our families and children, we cannot allow a situation where this coalition will continue to govern," said settlers’ movement leader Bennett.
Meanwhile, Israel’s foreign minister says it’s unacceptable to extend the country’s West Bank settlement slowdown — even as Mideast peace talks get under way.
Avigdor Lieberman says continued restrictions on construction would "punish" Israelis living in the settlements.
Lieberman suggested Wednesday on Israel Radio that Israel resume construction in major settlement blocs expected to remain in Israeli hands under a future peace deal, while limiting building elsewhere.
A 10-month moratorium on most West Bank construction expires Sept. 26. Israel is under pressure from the U.S. to extend the slowdown.