Middle East peace hopes were dealt a blow on Saturday when Israel's strategic affairs minister, Moshe Ya'alon, openly rebuffed calls by US president Barack Obama to stop expanding settlements.
Mr Ya'alon, who is a former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, told Channel 2 News that "settlement construction will not be halted," insisting: "They were never an obstacle [to peace], not at any stage."
His comments come just days after President Obama held high-profile talks with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, where he sought to revivie the faltering 2003 road-map.
Successive US governments, including that of George W Bush, have described Israeli settlement activity as a hindrance to peace.
But the rhetoric has steadily escalated since President Obama took office, with his administration placing the Middle East conflict at the centre of its campaign to restore moral authority around the world.
At a palpably uncomfortable press conference with the Israeli prime minister on Monday (May 18), the US leader told reporters: "There's a clear understanding that we have to make progress on settlements, that settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward."
The usually hawkish Mr Netanyahu did not reply to the comment, and also declined to discuss the US-backed two-state solution.
But strategic affairs minister Moshe Ya'alon, a key cabinet member of Mr Netanyahu's right-leaning Likud party, appears now to have responded for him. He told Channel 2 News that "settlement construction will not be halted" by US attempts to dictate Israeli policy.
"Settlements are not the reason that the peace process is failing," he insisted. "They were never an obstacle, not at any stage."
Mr Ya'alon went on to echo Mr Netanyahu's support for the "natural growth" of West Bank settlements, saying: "There are people here who are living their lives, raising children ... It wasn't housing that has prevented peace."
That assessment comes in stark contrast to rulings by the EU and the World Court – both of which have deemed settlement activity to be an illegal attempt at land-grabbing – and it does little to revive hopes that the US administration can exert diplomatic pressure on its historic ally.
About 500,000 Israelis currently live in more than 100 settlements dotted throughout the Palestinian territories. Many are members of orthodox Jewish communities that believe they have a biblical right to the land.
The pledge to continue developing the controversial outposts comes just hours after deputy defense minister Matan Vilnai, a member of the centre-left Labour party in Mr Netanyahu's coalition, vowed that the removal of 26 illegal outposts was now a "central issue" for the government.
"I admit that there was an ambiguity in the past, but now we are unequivocal," he had ominously declared. "We are dealing with it."