|Palestinians say building new homes will further stall the new peace process that is already under strain [Reuters]
Israel has unveiled plans for around 240 new homes for Jewish settlers in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, in a move that has drawn the ire of Palestinians.
The plans for new housing units in the settlement neighbourhoods of Pisgat Zeev and Ramot were approved late on Thursday by Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, the Ynet news website of Israel said.
The housing ministry did not respond to a request by the AFP news agency to confirm the proposals, and Netanyahu's spokesman, Mark Regev, said on Friday he could not confirm or deny the report as he was "not familiar" with any such plans.
Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator, said the move proved Israel was intent on "killing" every opportunity to revive the stalled direct peace talks between the two sides.
"We call upon the US administration to hold the Israeli government responsible for the collapse of the negotiations and the peace process as a result of this government's insistence on killing every opportunity for resuming negotiations," he said.
Under US pressure
The US has been pushing Israel to extend a 10-month moratorium on new settlement building in the occupied West Bank, but Netanyahu has failed to find an agreement to within his coalition government over the freeze that expired on September 26.
Although the freeze did not cover construction in East Jerusalem, Netanyahu had avoided signing off on any such projects in order to avoid the political fallout, Ynet said.
Israel seized East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it shortly afterwards in a move not recognised by the international community or the Palestinians, who consider it the capital of any future state.
The Palestinians see the settlements in the occupied West Bank as a major threat to the establishment of a viable state, and they view the freezing of settlement activity as a crucial test of Israel's intentions.
Peace Now, an Israeli organisation that acts as a settlement monitor, said that it was the first time such a plan had been approved since March, when Israel gave the green light to plans for the construction of 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem during a visit by Joe Biden, the US vice-president.
That decision prompted a major diplomatic dispute with the US administration.
A Peace Now member said the announcement showed that the Israeli government was trying to undermine the chances of salvaging the peace talks with the Palestinians.
"The fact is that someone - either the housing minister or the prime minister - is trying to make a point: they want to make it harder on peace efforts," Hagit Ofran told the AFP news agency.
"Such a decision is going to be a problem for the continuation of the talks and this is exactly what they were trying to achieve.
"It could be that Netanyahu knows that he will have to reimpose the freeze in the West Bank and needs to give something to the settlers."
Ofran said the invitation to tender for the planned homes was likely to be issued in the coming months.
Reacting to the housing plan, Sabri Saidam, a member of Fatah, the party of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, said: "US should push Israel to come to its senses. The policy of territorial appetite should be stopped and this policy of total denial of the rights of the Palestinians should come to an end."
He said accepting Israel's position would be tantamount to allowing the Netanyahu government to adopt a similar approach to the question of Jewish identity of Israel, Palestinians' right of return, the border issue and so on.
"It is hard for us as Palestinians to see how a deal could be struck in the presence of such [an Israeli] government and in the [face] of such an attitude," Saidam told Al Jazeera.
Washington on Friday expressed it "disappointment" and the new housing plans.
"We were disappointed by the announcement of new tenders in East Jerusalem yesterday, it is contrary to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties," PJ Crowley, the US state department spokesman, said.
"We will continue to work as we have to create conditions for direct negotiations to resume."
But Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros, reporting from Jerusalem, said there was a speculation that the US had been kept informed about the new developments.
"The Israeli media is reporting that the United States has been made well aware that these tenders have been issued and bargained the Israeli side down from 600 homes to about 240 homes," she said.
"One analyst said that this could be part of a larger deal that is being brokered. One that, in his words, means that would be a temporary opening before total reclosing [which] means there could be some kind of deal being brokered between prime minister Netanyahu and his rightwing coalition partners."
Indeed, senior Israeli government officials quoted by the country's Yediot Aharonot newspaper said Netanyahu not only knew about the move but had co-ordinated it in advance with the Obama administration.
"It is a symbolic decision which, even so, took a long time to make," a senior cabinet minister was quoted as telling the paper, saying US officials had urged Netanyahu to delay the decision.
"The Americans pressured Netanyahu to wait with it and delayed the decision by several weeks. We don't want to quarrel with them and break the rules of the game."
The Israeli minister was quoted as predicting that the US would issue only a "weak condemnation" of the proposals.