The Israeli cabinet has voted to expand the list of illegal West Bank settlements eligible for government subsidies, just days after the resumption of talks with the Palestinian Authority in which settlements are a major issue.

Ministers on Sunday approved a new "national priority map," a list of poor communities earmarked for housing subsidies and other benefits.

Included on the list are 91 settlements in the occupied West Bank, up from 85 on the previous version. Many of them are in areas which would almost certainly be evacuated by Israel in a deal with the Palestinians.

Three of the newly-added settlements - Rehelim, Sansana and Bruchin - were until recently considered "illegal outposts," which means they were built without government approval. Their status was normalised last year by a cabinet vote.

This is exactly what Israel wants ... a free hand to destroy the objective of the [negotiation] process.

Hanan Ashrawi, Palestinian negotiator

Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, and the United Nations and much of the world treats them as such.

The vote comes just days after Palestinian and Israeli negotiators flew to Washington for their first face-to-face meeting in three years.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said the cabinet vote affirmed Palestinian suspicions about Israel's motivations.

"This is exactly what Israel wants, have a process for its own sake, and at the same time have a free hand to destroy the objective of the process," she said. "This will have a destructive impact [on the talks]."

Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli government, said the government would have to grant additional approval for any subsidies to the settlements.

Four Israeli ministers abstained from the vote, including Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is also the lead negotiator with the Palestinian Authority.

"I don't think it is the time diplomatically, or from a socioeconomic point of view,to include new settlements that until recently were illegal," said environment minister Amir Peretz, who also abstained.

Some of the newly-listed settlements are political strongholds of the Jewish Home party, a member of the governing coalition which is opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state.

Source: Agencies