Israel on Wednesday announced plans to build dozens of new homes in a contentious east Jerusalem settlement, casting a cloud over an upcoming peace mission by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Kerry has been shuttling between Israel and the Palestinians in recent months in search of a formula to restart long-stalled peace talks. Kerry has urged both sides to avoid provocative moves that could undermine his work.
Talks have been stalled for nearly five years. The Palestinians have demanded a halt in settlement construction before returning to the negotiating table. The Palestinians claim the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in 1967, as parts of a future state and consider Israeli settlement construction to be a sign of bad faith.
Well over 500,000 Israelis now live in the settlements, making it increasingly difficult to partition the land between two states. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the fate of settlements is a matter for negotiations, and talks should begin without any preconditions.
Brachie Sprung, spokeswoman for the Jerusalem municipality, said the project in the Har Homa area of the city was approved long ago and that Wednesday's decision granted final permits for construction to actually begin.
She said a total of 69 homes were to be built, and noted that Wednesday's committee meeting also approved 22 new homes in Arab neighborhoods of the city.
In a statement, the municipality said the construction was part of a master plan to ease a housing crunch faced by all city residents.
"There is no change in the municipality's policy in the last 40 years. We continue to build in all of the city's neighborhoods according to a master plan. In the next few years, tens of thousands of residential units are expected to be built throughout the city for all ethnic groups," it said.
After capturing east Jerusalem, Israel annexed the area in a move that has never been internationally recognized. To solidify its control of the area, it has ringed east Jerusalem with a string of developments.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the Israeli move. "Such behavior proves that the Israeli government is determined to undermine Secretary Kerry's efforts at every level," he said.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Kerry is "very focused" on getting talks back on track. "He's going to go take stock with these leaders and see if some of the hard decisions have been made," Ventrell said.
Kerry is making his fifth visit to the region since taking office early this year, and so far there have been no signs of progress. Kerry is expected to present a proposed framework for negotiations in the coming weeks, perhaps even on this visit.
In the absence of peace talks, the Palestinians have been threatening to join various U.N. bodies where they can press their campaign against Israel since winning upgraded observer status in the world body last year. Israel bitterly opposes the campaign, saying it is a way to circumvent the negotiating process.
On Wednesday, Palestinian officials acknowledged they have suspended their application to the U.N.'s cultural agency to have a West Bank village recognized as a world heritage site.
One official involved in the process said the decision was meant as a goodwill gesture to Kerry.
"The idea was to give Kerry a chance, and not allow the Israelis to blame our side if it failed," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the press.
Palestinians hoped that UNESCO's recognition of Battir would help protect the village farmlands and its Roman-age irrigation system, threatened by the proposed route of Israel's separation barrier through the southern Jerusalem hills.
"We lost a historic opportunity," village mayor Akram Bader said. "We kept waiting for them (Palestinian officials at UNESCO) to put forward the application. They kept promising this week, next week," he said.
Palestinian tourism official Hamdan Taha, who was involved with putting together the application, confirmed it was delayed, but could not offer more information.
He said the Battir application could be resubmitted next year. "It depends on a political decision," Taha said.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Diaa Hadid contributed.