Jerusalem - The chief Palestinian negotiator has accused the Israeli government of trying to "sabotage" US moves to rekindle peace talks by signing off on plans for nearly 300 new settler homes near Ramallah.
The Israeli announcement on Thursday 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 bring both 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.
He said the plan was announced last year as a compensatory measure after the government ordered the evacuation of the unauthorised Ulpana outpost on the outskirts of Beit El.
Washington warned Israel that its plans for settlement housing were "counterproductive".
"As the president said, Israelis must recognise that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace and that an independent Palestine must be viable, with real borders that have to be drawn," State Department spokesperson Patrick Ventrell said.
Playing it down
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said the move sent a clear message to Washington that Israel was not interested in resuming the direct talks, frozen in 2010.
"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 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.
Kerry said on Wednesday he would make his fourth trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories on 21 or 22 May for talks with Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.
Deceiving the world
Hagit Ofran of Israel's Peace Now settlement watchdog, who on Wednesday had confirmed that 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.
Meanwhile Kerry hosted talks on Thursday with special Middle East envoy Tony Blair as he seeks to find a way to resume the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The two men met privately for more than two hours in the US ambassador's residence in Rome, after Kerry also talked earlier in the day with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.
Peace Now said Netanyahu's reported freeze would apply only to larger settlements as the procedure of issuing tenders was not necessary for construction in smaller settlements such as Beit El.
Beit El, which so far has 900 units, 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, with construction likely to start "in about a year's time".
According to the Walla! news website, the plan was approved two weeks ago by Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, an open supporter of settlement construction who will have to approve every additional stage of the planning process.
It also said Yaalon had met settler leaders on Wednesday over the reported tender freeze and explained that the US pressure to demonstrate restraint would probably continue until June.
The meeting evidently went well, with settler leader Avi Roeh expressing confidence that "the new spirit in the defence ministry will strengthen Israel and the settlements in particular", Walla! reported.
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.