Israel announced on Friday that roughly 800 new houses would be built in the West Bank and 600 in east Jerusalem, according to reports in the Haaretz newspaper and other Israeli media. The Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now put the total figure for new settler home tenders rather higher, at 1,877.
The new tenders had been expected slightly earlier in the month, and the Israeli press speculated that the move was delayed so it would not clash with US Secretary of State John Kerry's most recent trip to the region.
Palestinian leaders criticized the announcement as a threat to the Middle East peace process tentatively restarted last summer.
"The new settlement construction plan is a message from [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu to Kerry not to come back to the region to continue his efforts in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks," senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told the AFP news agency. "Every time Kerry has stepped up his efforts, returning to the region, Netanyahu has stepped up his efforts to destroy the peace process."
The areas where the so-called settler homes are being built lie on territory the Palestinians want for their state, with a "two-state solution" the ultimate goal of the peace talks. According to Peace Now, Israel has issued 5,500 tenders for new housing in the occupied West bank and East Jerusalem since the peace talks resumed - compared to an annual average of 2,000 to 3,000 in recent years. In total, more than half a million Israelis live in East Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank.
After Kerry, before Steinmeier
On December 31, Israel freed a third batch of Palestinian prisoners, a goodwill gesture Netanyahu's government agreed to ahead of the resumption of talks. In return, the Palestinian Authority agreed not to use its comparatively new UN classification as a "non-member observer state" - as opposed to an "entity" - to unilaterally seek international support on issues like settlements.
Most countries argue either that the settlement project contravenes international law or at least hampers peace negotiations; Kerry urged restraint on the issue during his visit earlier in the week. Also on Friday, Israel summoned its Netherlands' ambassador for "clarification," after a Dutch pension fund on Wednesday divested its assets from five Israeli banks because they financed such settler homes.
Some analysts have pointed to the accelerated settlement building as an attempt to pacify the more conservative elements of Netanyahu's coalition, and rival right-wing parties, who oppose the prisoners' release. Israel's opposition Labor party has argued that Netanyahu's government should have halted settlement construction instead of freeing the prisoners.
Meanwhile, the government in Berlin on Friday said that Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier - back in the cabinet after four years in opposition - would head to the Middle East on Sunday.
msh/pfd (AFP, AP, Reuters)