- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 19, 2012

JERUSALEM — Israel on Wednesday pressed forward with the construction of thousands of new homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, part of a series of new settlement plans that have drawn worldwide rebuke, including from its closest ally, the United States.

Separate planning committees on Wednesday gave approval to a new settlement in east Jerusalem, the first to be built in the contested area since 1997, and construction of 1,000 new homes in existing settlements across the West Bank.

The announcements drew harsh Palestinian condemnations and were likely to heighten the already rising tensions between Israel and its allies in the West.

The Palestinians claim the West Bank and east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967, as parts of a future state. The international community opposes all Israeli settlement in the two areas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at a gathering of foreign diplomats, refused to back down.

“All Israeli governments have built in Jerusalem. We’re not going to change that,” he said. “I want to ask any of you to imagine that you would limit construction in your own capital. It doesn’t make sense,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

Israel annexed east Jerusalem, home to sensitive Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites, after the 1967 war in a move that has never been internationally recognized.

While Israel claims the entire city, the Palestinians want to make east Jerusalem their capital. The battle over east Jerusalem is perhaps the most intractable and explosive issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Netanyahu authorized the construction of thousands of new settlement homes in response to the U.N. General Assembly’s recognition of Palestine in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip as a nonmember observer state.

Israel rejects a full pullback to its 1967 borders, and accused the Palestinians of trying to bypass negotiations with the move.

The Palestinians say they turned to the U.N. in frustration after four years of deadlock in Mideast peace efforts. The Palestinians have refused to negotiate with Israel while settlement construction continues, saying the building in territories they claim is a sign of bad faith.

“The Israeli settlement enterprise in the West Bank and east Jerusalem is killing the two-state solution, and we are taking the battle against this enterprise to the international community,” Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad Malki said Wednesday.

Israeli critics have accused Mr. Netanyahu of backing the plans to pander to hard-line voters ahead of Jan. 22 parliamentary elections.

While Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party holds a firm lead in opinion polls, they also show him losing support to even harder-line religious and nationalist parties.

Construction on most of the projects could be years away, making it easy for Mr. Netanyahu to court voters while leaving open the possibility of putting the projects back on hold after the vote.

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