Jerusalem - Israel has signed off on plans for nearly 300 new settler homes near Ramallah, angering the Palestinians who accused the Israeli government on Thursday of trying to "sabotage" US moves to rekindle peace talks.
The announcement came just days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly ordered a freeze on tenders for new West Bank settler homes to avoid harming efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry to draw the sides back to the negotiating table.
"The Civil Administration has given the green light for 296 housing units at Beit El," said the spokesperson for a defence ministry unit which administers the West Bank.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said the move sent a clear message to Washington that Israel was not interested in resuming the frozen direct talks.
"We condemn this new decision which is proof that the Israeli government wants to sabotage and ruin the US administration's efforts to revive the peace process," he said.
"This is a message to the American administration and a blow to the peace process," he said, suggesting it would drag the region towards violence rather than peace.
But his Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni, sought to play down the development, news of which reached her as she was meeting with Kerry in Rome on Wednesday afternoon.
"There is no need for this to become a pretext for drama or anger," she told army radio, saying she had updated the Americans about the development.
"They listened and they understood, and for the moment, there is no reaction."
The Civil Administration said the new homes were announced last year as a compensatory measure after the government ordered the evacuation of the unauthorised Ulpana outpost on the outskirts of Beit El.
Hagit Ofran of Israel's Peace Now settlement watchdog, who on Wednesday had confirmed no new tenders had been issued since the start of the year, lashed out at the announcement, accusing Netanyahu of playing a double game.
"This initiative proves Netanyahu is deceiving the world," she said.
"On the one hand, he lets us believe that he is putting the brakes on settlement and on the other, he gives the go-ahead for an enormous building project."
Earlier this week, senior Israeli officials quoted by Haaretz newspaper said Netanyahu had promised Kerry he would "rein in" settlement construction in both the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem until mid-June in light of US efforts to renew negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
In parallel, the Palestinians agreed to suspend for two months all efforts to seek international recognition.
Peace Now said Netanyahu's reported freeze on issuing new tenders would only apply to larger settlements as such procedure was not necessary for building in smaller, more isolated settlements like Beit El with its 900 housing units.
Beit El is located on the northern outskirts of Ramallah in an area that would not be annexed to Israel under any future peace agreement.
Ofran said the plan would increase the size of Beit El by a third, but that it would need to go through several more stages before building could start, most likely "in about a year's time".
Direct peace talks collapsed shortly after they were launched in September 2010 because of an intractable dispute over Israel's settlement building, which is widely accepted as a violation of international law.
The Palestinians say they will not return to negotiations unless Israel freezes construction on land they want for a future state.