- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 5, 2009

JERUSALEM | Israel said Friday it will construct hundreds of new housing units in West Bank settlements before any slowdown in building, an announcement that drew harsh criticism from Washington, which demands a complete settlement freeze as a prelude to renewing Mideast peace talks.

Israeli officials characterized the move as a concession to the U.S. demand because it might bring a temporary halt to other construction. But because it would also mean building new units and finishing about 2,500 others now under construction, it looked more like defiance than acquiescence.

Israel’s proposal does not include any freeze in building in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians hope to make their future capital.

The Obama administration’s response did not mince words.

“We regret the reports of Israel’s plans to approve additional settlement construction,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday. “As the president has said before, the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also criticized the Israeli plan.

“For us, this idea is completely unacceptable,” he told reporters after meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris. “We are asking the Israelis to freeze the settlements and to go towards the next phase of peace talks.”

Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat went further, saying, “I think the only thing that will be suspended by this announcement is the peace process.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be trying to keep his right-leaning coalition together by building in the settlements while at the same time trying to placate the U.S., which has made halting settlements a cornerstone of its Mideast diplomacy.

In recent weeks, however, the Obama team has appeared to back down somewhat from its earlier insistence that Israel halt all construction in the settlements, hinting that a less-than-complete moratorium might be acceptable.

Peace talks have been suspended since shortly before Mr. Netanyahu’s election, but there are expectations of a first meeting between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas at the U.N. General Assembly in New York later this month.

Mr. Abbas, however, hinted Friday that such a meeting would not take place while settlement construction continues.

“Everything will depend on the decisions that will be taken concerning the freezing of the settlements,” he said.

Two Netanyahu aides said that in the next few days, the Israeli leader will approve the construction of hundreds of new apartments in the West Bank.

They did not give a specific number, but said these units would be in addition to the 2,500 that are already under construction and will continue to be built. The construction will be centered in the main settlement blocs, areas Israel hopes to retain after any peace deal. The aides spoke on the condition of anonymity because the government has made no official announcement.

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