Israel stepped up settlement building in the West Bank in the first nine months of last year, an Israeli watchdog group said Tuesday, underlining the issue that has deadlocked peace talks with the Palestinians.
The anti-settlement group Peace Now said Israel began construction of about 1,850 homes in West Bank settlements in the first nine months of 2011, about 20 percent more than all of the previous year.
The 2010 figures were depressed by a 10-month freeze on new construction that Israel imposed in hopes of encouraging negotiations. Talks barely got off the ground. Once the freeze expired in September 2010, Israel resumed construction, and the Palestinians stopped the talks.
The issue of settlement construction persists at the heart of the current impasse in peace efforts.
The Palestinians say they will not resume negotiations as long as Israel continues to build in its settlements in the West Bank as well as in east Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and claimed by the Palestinians for their future state.
Israel insists on negotiations without conditions, noting that the Palestinians have not demanded a settlement construction freeze as a condition for talks in the past.
The Palestinians say continued construction in these areas, now home to roughly 500,000 Israeli settlers, is a sign of bad faith. Israel annexed east Jerusalem after the 1967 Mideast war and does not consider housing there to be settlements. The international community does not recognize the annexation.
The Israeli government keeps its own statistics on construction. During the same nine-month period, Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics reported less than half the construction starts that Peace Now reported.
Peace Now spokeswoman Hagit Ofran said the government's figures are lower because of different methodologies. She said the government depends on numbers reported by local settlement authorities, while Peace Now conducts on-the-ground and aerial monitoring that also looks at illegal settlement construction in locations the Israeli government has not approved.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev rejected the criticism, saying that Israel continues to "exercise great restraint" in its settlement construction.
He said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under heavy criticism by settler leaders for not building enough in the West Bank.
"We have shown more restraint on the issue of settlement than any previous Israeli government," Regev said.
Last week, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators began low-level talks in neighboring Jordan in hopes of finding a formula to restart formal negotiations.
In Amman, Jordan, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Tuesday that these preliminary talks provide an "important opportunity" for restarting the peace process.
Abbas said hopes for success are "weak." Even so, "we must take this chance," Abbas told reporters after meeting Jordan's King Abdullah II.
Abdullah, who is hosting the talks, is scheduled to meet President Barack Obama at the White House on Jan. 14. Abdullah said that meeting would focus on restarting serious Mideast negotiations.
Associated Press writer Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.