JERUSALEM: Israel's Housing Ministry said Thursday it has given the final go-ahead for the construction of 300 new homes in a Jewish settlement in east Jerusalem, complicating the mission of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to renew Mideast peace talks.
The announcement came less than a week after Kerry urged Israel to avoid "provocative" actions during a visit to the region. A U.S. State Department spokeswoman described the move as "counterproductive."
Palestinian officials immediately accused Israel of undermining the U.S. mediation efforts.
The issue of Jewish settlements has been at the heart of a nearly five-year impasse in peace efforts. Negotiations broke down in late 2008 and have remained stalled since then.
The Palestinians say they will not return to negotiations until Israel stops building settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas they claim for a future state. Israel, which captured both areas in the 1967 Mideast war, says talks should resume without any conditions.
Israel has tried to differentiate between settlements in the West Bank, which is not part of Israel, and east Jerusalem, which it annexed and claims as part of its capital. But the international community, including the U.S., does not recognize the annexation and considers both territories to be occupied.
Housing Ministry spokesman Ariel Rosenberg said the latest construction, in the Ramot area of east Jerusalem, was approved by the government long ago but in recent days, the ministry accepted a bid by a company to build the 300 housing units. He said the ministry had solicited the bids last year. Construction is expected to begin within a few months.
Ramot is a sprawling development that lies mostly in territory Israel seized in 1967. Israel considers it a neighborhood of its capital.
More than 500,000 Israelis now live in settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians say continued construction is a sign of bad faith and makes it increasingly difficult to partition the land between Israel and a future Palestinian state.
Palestinian official Saeb Erekat described the construction plans as "systematic destruction" of Kerry's efforts by Israeli hardliners. The Housing Ministry is headed by the "Jewish Home," a hardline party with close ties to the Jewish settler movement.
"They are settlers, working for settlers," Erekat said.
Government spokesman Ofir Gendelman accused Palestinians of making excuses to avoid peace talks.
"It is a tactic to avoid negotiations," Gendelman said. "We are calling on Palestinians to return to direct negotiations immediately in order to discuss all outstanding issues," he said.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki chided Israel for the move.
"Israelis must recognize that continued construction in East Jerusalem is counterproductive to the cause of peace and that an independent Palestine must be viable, with real borders that have to be drawn," she said.
"We're at a pivotal time," Psaki told reporters. "We need to focus on each side making tough choices in order to move a process or the possibility of negotiations forward. And that's what our focus is on."
Aides to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas say Kerry hopes to present a formal plan to resume long-stalled negotiations in coming weeks.
During his visit last week, Kerry said it was impossible to expect Israel to halt all settlement construction. But he urged restraint and called on both sides to avoid any moves that could undermine his efforts.
Since taking office early this year, Kerry has devoted significant efforts to restarting peace talks. He has visited the region four times, most recently last week, in search of a formula acceptable to both sides.
Abbas' aides said the president was under pressure to accept some construction in Jewish settlements in blocs, particularly in those expected to lie on the Israeli side of a future border.