Israeli minister says no pause on settlements after US asked Israel to halt expansion

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks to the media in Jerusalem
Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks at a news conference after announcing that he will sign an order to seize Palestinian Authority funds and transfer them to the families of victims of Palestinian attacks, at Israel's Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, January 8, 2023. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

JERUSALEM, Feb 7 (Reuters) - One of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-right allies said on Tuesday Israel would not freeze Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank, a week after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed Israel to halt construction.

"There will be no construction freeze in Judea and Samaria period," a statement from Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich's Religious Zionism party said on Tuesday, using a term common in Israel for the West Bank.

Senior members of Netanyahu's far-right coalition have sought to further expand Jewish settlement in the West Bank, which was captured by Israel in a 1967 war and where Palestinians have long aimed to establish a state. Most world powers consider Israel's settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as illegal.

On a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories last week, Blinken repeated U.S. calls for a two-state solution to the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and called publicly for an end to settlement expansion.

In private talks with Netanyahu, Blinken also asked Israel to stop Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank and halt the demolition of Palestinian houses, three U.S. and Arab sources confirmed to Reuters, stressing that the request was not expressed as a formal demand.

Smotrich also oversees defence ministry organizations that are responsible for enforcing some regulations in the West Bank, giving him significant powers over the area.

Hopes of achieving a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state based largely in the West Bank, have all but disappeared since the last round of U.S.-sponsored talks stalled in 2014.

Reporting by Emily Rose, Steve Holland, Editing by William Maclean

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