Israeli plans for new settlement construction irk U.S., Palestinians

Israel invites bids to build 450 apartments in West Bank settlements

Israeli plans to advance settlement construction in the West Bank drew sharp rebukes Friday from the United States and Palestinian Authority, adding to already strained relations.

The Israel Land Authority on Thursday invited bids to build 450 apartments earmarked for four settlements, including Kiryat Arba,  Adam, Elkana and Alfei Menash.

Israeli authorities said most of the tenders had already been announced but failed to attract contractors. That did not appear to appease the United States, a key ally.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest expressed the Obama administration’s deep concern “about Israel's highly contentious settlement construction announcements," which he said “inflame already heightened tension with the Palestinians and further isolate the Israelis internationally.”

The European Union issued a statement urging Israel to halt settlement expansion, which it said was “illegal in international law” and an “obstacle to peace.”

Israel’s domestic critics tied the announcement to upcoming elections in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking a fourth term.

“It is a pre-election grab to establish facts on the ground,” the veteran anti-settlement group Peace Now said in a statement published on its website.

Since U.S.-brokered negotiations collapsed last year, Israeli-Palestinian relations have been plunged into crisis, most recently by a Palestinian move to join the International Criminal Court in The Hague to pursue cases against Israeli military activity.

Israel responded by freezing monthly transfers of more than $100 million in taxes it collects for the Palestinian Authority, a move that could in time be the undoing of the chronically cash-strapped body.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called on the international community Friday “to recognize the State of Palestine,” ban purchase of  settlement exports and divest from businesses associated with Israel’s occupation of lands that Palestinians want for a future state.

News reports quoted Erekat as chiding the international community for creating a “culture of impunity,” such as by inviting Netanyahu to address  the U.S. Congress while Israel continues to withhold Palestinian tax money.

In a breach of diplomatic protocol that clearly irked the Obama administration, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) invited Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress without first informing the White House or the State Department.

The White House has said that President Obama won’t meet with Netanyahu when he  visits Washington in March, citing concern that it could be seen as meddling in Israel’s election two weeks later.

Sobelman is a special correspondent.

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