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Dec 10, 2:57 PM EST

Israel minister says US censure slows settlements


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Conflict in the Middle East

JERUSALEM (AP) -- U.S. criticism of Israel's settlement policies has slowed down construction in the West Bank, Israel's defense minister said in comments broadcast Wednesday, adding that he hopes the slowdown will be "temporary" because the Obama administration "won't be around forever."

The comments by Moshe Yaalon came days before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to travel to Rome for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Yaalon, has previously derided U.S. peace efforts in the Middle East, calling Kerry "obsessive" and "messianic." Those comments rankled Washington officials and stoked tensions with Israel's most important ally.

Speaking Tuesday at a Jewish seminary in the West Bank, Yaalon said Israel wants to build more settlement housing but that global criticism, led by the U.S., has prompted restraint.

"The United States has led the charge," Yaalon said. "We are very, very careful not to push the envelope too much... This (U.S.) administration won't be around forever and I hope it is temporary."

The remarks, broadcast on Israeli Army Radio, could lead to further tensions between Israel and Washington - tensions that were clearly on display in October, when the U.S. refused Yaalon's requests to meet several top national security aides during a visit to Washington.

The State Department announced Wednesday that Kerry and Netanyahu would be meeting in Rome next week. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the talks would focus on "developments in Israel, the West Bank, Jerusalem and the region."

Psaki also reiterated longstanding U.S. opposition to Israeli settlements and suggested it would not change after President Barack Obama leaves office in 2017. "Our policy has been consistent for quite some time," Psaki told reporters on Wednesday.

The Obama administration has long had a tense dynamic with Netanyahu, mostly for his close relationship with the Republican Party and for what is sometimes seen as a lecturing tone toward Obama. Disagreements over Israel's West Bank settlement policies have also often flared tensions.

Anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now says no new settlement building plans have been announced since a meeting between Obama and Netanyahu in October, but that building of previously announced housing continues.

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Associated Press writers Matt Lee and Lara Jakes in Washington contributed to this report.

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