Jerusalem: Israel on Monday officially approved the construction of hundreds of new homes in the West Bank, deepening an already unprecedented rift with the US over Israeli settlement expansion.
The construction is the first approved by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is under heavy US pressure to freeze all settlement activity on captured lands claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.
Netanyahu, trying to placate the Americans, has said the newly approved homes are a prelude to a freeze, but that`s been a tough sell internationally because Israel also plans to complete another 2,500 homes already under way.
Under Monday`s order, Defence Minister Ehud Barak authorised construction of 366 new apartments, the Defence Ministry announced. An additional 84 new apartments will be approved in the near future, bringing the total number to 450, the Ministry said.
The order includes permission to proceed with construction of a new settler enclave in the Jordan Valley, an area that is considered vital to a future Palestinian state because of its rich farmlands and location deep inside the West Bank.
By rebuffing US pressure, Netanyahu has tried to cement the support of a coalition that is committed to strengthening Israel`s control over the West Bank.
Netanyahu has offered to slow construction afterward, in exchange for overtures from the Arab world. This has not mollified the Americans or the Palestinians, who have demanded an immediate and total freeze.
"Given the choice between making peace and making settlements, they have chosen to make settlements," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
A US embassy spokesman didn`t immediately return a telephone call. But the US has sharply rebuked Israel over the latest construction plans, first reported on Friday.
George Mitchell, the US Mideast envoy, is due in the region within the coming week to hold yet another round of talks meant to wrest Israeli concessions that would allow the resumption of Israel-Palestinian peace talks.
Netanyahu aides have spoken optimistically of reaching an accommodation. But it is not clear that optimism is warranted, because Netanyahu`s so-called building moratorium would not apply to the 450 new apartments, to 2,500 already under construction, or to east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967 and the Palestinians claim as their future capital.