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.
More than 550,000 Israelis live in dozens of settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, a majority in larger communities close to Israel's pre-1967 frontier. In addition, the West Bank is dotted with smaller settlements, such as Bruchin and Itamar, as well as dozens of outposts not formally sanctioned by the government that would likely have to be dismantled in any partition deal.
Kerry has been searching for a formula that would bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. It is expected to include a slowdown in settlement construction, security guarantees to Israel and economic incentives to the Palestinians.
Kerry has urged both sides to avoid provocative actions that could hurt the negotiating climate.
"Certainly we find this unhelpful," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said of the latest building plans.
"I think the secretary himself made very clear the last couple of times he's spoken about this that both sides need to make tough choices. And it's on them to make the decision about whether they're willing to move back to the table," she added.
The international community considers Israeli settlements on war-won lands illegal or illegitimate.
Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, an anti-settlement watchdog group, said the new plans included construction of 1,000 homes, and retroactive approval of 200 existing homes. She said construction could begin in about a year.
Bruchin, which currently has 52 apartments, started out as an unauthorized settlement outpost, one of dozens settlers put up since the 1990s with the declared aim of preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state. A year ago, the government began the process of retroactively legalizing Bruchin, said Ofran. Bruchin is to have a total of 550 homes.
In Itamar, the planners retroactively legalized 137 homes built without permits and decided to add another 538, for a total of 675, Ofran said. Itamar also serves as a "mother settlement" for several outposts.
The latest plan exposes the Netanyahu's government's intentions, Ofran said. "While he is saying he is ready for peace and two states, he is acting to prevent it on the ground," she said.
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed reporting.