Image: Construction workers at Jewish settlement in West Bank
Sebastian Scheiner  /  AP
Construction workers build a new house Monday in the Jewish West Bank settlement of Har Gilo on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
updated 9/7/2009 8:58:38 AM ET 2009-09-07T12:58:38

Israel officially approved the construction of hundreds of new homes in the West Bank, the Defense Ministry said Monday, deepening an already unprecedented rift with the United States over Israeli settlement expansion.

The construction is the first approved by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is under heavy U.S. 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 an additional 2,500 homes already under way.

Under the order, Defense Minister Ehud Barak authorized construction of 366 new apartments, the Defense 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.

Building support
By rebuffing U.S. pressure, Netanyahu has tried to cement the support of a coalition that is committed to strengthening Israel's control over the West Bank.

At the same time, he has offered to slow construction afterward in exchange for overtures from the Arab world. This has 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 U.S. Embassy spokesman didn't immediately return a telephone call. But the United States has sharply rebuked Israel over the latest construction plans, first reported Friday.

George Mitchell, the U.S. 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 disputed east Jerusalem.

Bucking pressure
Dani Dayan, leader of the West Bank settlers' council, said the government had approved only limited construction and accused it of caving in to American pressure.

"North Korea is going on developing its nuclear capabilities, Iran is going on developing its nuclear capabilities, we have threats all over the world and all the world international community is interested with is whether my daughter builds her house next to mine," he told foreign reporters. "It is all based on the erroneous perception that the creation of a Palestinian state is the magical solution to the situation here."

The Palestinians want to establish an independent state that includes the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. Israel captured all three areas in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and the coastal territory was subsequently taken over by Hamas militants.

About 300,000 Israelis live among about 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and an additional 180,000 live in Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem.

While it could take months or years for construction to begin on most of the homes approved on Monday, infrastructure work was already in progress for 20 houses in the Jordan Valley enclave of Maskiot.

Israel drew international criticism in 2006 when it announced plans establish Maskiot, and the plan was suspended until Barak approved it in July 2008. Eight families, all evacuated from the Gaza Strip when Israel pulled out in 2005, have been living there in trailers for years.

Later Monday, settlers, Cabinet ministers and lawmakers planned to hold a mock cornerstone-laying ceremony for what they hope will be a new neighborhood of 3,000 apartments in an especially contentious area outside Jerusalem.

Palestinians say Israeli development would cut off east Jerusalem from the West Bank and kill their dreams to set up a capital there. The construction plans were frozen years ago under pressure from Washington.

The land where the neighborhood lies is in a wedge between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim, Israel's second-largest settlement.

More on: Israel | West Bank

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