JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel is moving forward with plans to build more than 1,000 homes in two small isolated Jewish settlements deep in the West Bank, a spokesman said Thursday, as Palestinian officials complained that Israel is undercutting U.S. peace efforts at a sensitive time.
The announcement drew swift U.S. condemnation.
The settlements to be expanded, Itamar and Bruchin, are located in an area of the West Bank that would not be part of Israel in any foreseeable partition deal with the Palestinians. The building plans, which still need final approval, would increase the number of homes in both settlements far beyond any needs for accommodating natural population growth.
The Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now initially reported the proposed expansions of the two settlements, a decision later confirmed by Guy Inbar, a spokesman for Israel's Defense Ministry, which helps oversee settlement policy. He said the plans were advanced in the past two weeks.
The construction plans were given preliminary approval last year and still require official endorsement following public appeals.
Israeli settlement building lies at the heart of the impasse over restarting negotiations on the terms of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Such talks broke down nearly five years ago, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has shuttled between the two sides in recent months to bring them back to the table, so far to no avail.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967. Before going to talks, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to recognize Israel's pre-1967 line as a starting point or promise to stop building in settlements. The Israeli leader has refused to do either, saying all issues should be discussed in negotiations.
Nabil Shaath, an Abbas adviser, said Israel's latest move is a new sign of bad faith.
"This Israeli government is destroying the two-state solution and the prospects of a peace deal in deeds and words," he said. "They (Israelis) say they have the right to build anywhere they want in the West Bank, and then they say 'let's go to negotiations' while they continue building settlements on our lands, and then they blame us if we say that there can be no negotiations with the continuation of the settlement activities."
Senior Israeli government officials were traveling with Netanyahu in Poland and not immediately available for comment. An official in Netanyahu's office said he was not authorized to comment on the record.