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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israel Lifts Restrictions On New Settlements

JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government Friday lifted restrictions on building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but was vague about how much construction it would permit.

The cabinet also decided that plans to build new settlements would have to win special government approval.

The long-awaited decision, the first on the subject by the hardline government, was less than what Jewish settlers had hoped for, but was expected to lead to an expansion of the 144 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

About 145,000 settlers live in the West Bank and Gaza, amid 2 million Palestinians who hope to establish an independent state there.

Palestinians responded angrily Friday, saying settlement construction violated peace agreements signed by Israel.

"The government is pushing the situation to a confrontation," said Hassan Awfour, a senior Palestinian peace negotiator. "If they continue in this way, the peace process will face a big danger. The people will fight for their rights and their land."

Friday's decision was vague in many respects, and appeared aimed at satisfying the settlers while not angering the United States and Israel's Arab peace partners.

Netanyahu's foreign policy adviser, Dore Gold, was to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher in Washington later Friday, in part to discuss settlement policy. Netanyahu himself was scheduled to meet Jordan's King Hussein in Amman on Monday.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa warned in an interview published Friday that peacemaking could come to a halt over the settlements. "You cannot have both peace and settlements. Israel cannot have it all," Moussa told the Israeli Haaretz daily.

Netanyahu told his ministers Friday he wanted to correct what he said was discrimination against Jewish settlements under the previous government which had curbed construction as part of its peace talks with the Palestinians.

"The previous government placed shackles on the natural growth of the Jewish settlements," Netanyahu said, according to Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh. "Clearly this situation is unacceptable to us."

Settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein said Friday's decision hinted that the new government was more sympathetic to the settlers, but that he was disappointed that no specific construction projects were approved.

? Netanyahu met secretly with Hussein last week and passed on a message urging Syria's president to renew peace talks with Israel, reports said Friday.

Israel army radio and the daily Maariv newspaper said Netanyahu asked the king to tell Syrian President Hafez Assad that Israel would like to renew stalled peace talks.

"Let's renew the talks, we have much to discuss," Netanyahu reportedly said in his message. Maariv said King Hussein planned to pass on the message to Assad in a meeting in Damascus on Saturday.

Syria was seen as instrumental in last month's swap of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers for guerrillas from the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah in Lebanon. Syria is the main power broker in Lebanon.