Settlement leaders plan for growth

JERUSALEM — Anticipating a shift in government policy regarding Jewish settlements in the territories, settlement leaders have drafted a plan for the expansion and creation of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

According to members of the Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, the plan includes a call for the establishment of eight new settlements in the territories.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he favors settlement expansion, but has left open whether this would include enlarging existing settlements or creating new ones.

Arab leaders have warned that virtually any plan for settlement expansion would bring the peace process to a halt.

Officials with the Yesha Council said the focus of their program was to triple the current settler population in the territories during the next four years.

About 134,000 Jews live on 144 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics reported in March.

The previous Labor-led government sought to contain the creation of new Jewish settlements in the territories.

Before leaving for the United States last week, Netanyahu brought Likud hard-liner Ariel Sharon into the government as national infrastructure minister.

In the early 1990s, as housing minister, Sharon spearheaded a Jewish settlement drive in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.