JERUSALEM -- Only a day after reports that President Obama had scathing words for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's settlement policy and six days before Israeli elections, more construction was announced Wednesday.
The Housing Ministry issued tenders for another 198 settlement apartments, 84 of them planned for the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, one of the more sensitive locations in the West Bank.
Housing Minister Ariel Atias told Israeli media these were part of the thousands of apartments the government decided to market "after hearing Abu Mazen's speech at the United Nations" in November, a reference to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who at that time won support from the U.N. General Assembly for raising the Palestinians' status in the international body.
Atias dismissed criticism that the timing was related to the election campaign. "This has nothing to do with elections.... We are building to meet natural growth needs, not in defiance of the world," he said.
The day before, Bloomberg news service columnist Jeffrey Goldberg reported that Obama "didn't even bother getting angry" after Israel announced new settlement efforts following the U.N. vote in November. Goldberg quoted the president saying that "Israel doesn't know what its own best interests are."
The U.S. consistently opposes Israel's settlement policy but ill-timed announcements have often aggravated this dispute. "Now? Really? Five days before elections? Couldn't this have waited a week?" said opposition Labor Party lawmaker Ben-Eliezer.
"This is Netanyahu's answer to the warning sounded from the U.S.," said lawmaker Zehava Galon, leader of the liberal political party Meretz. "We will yet pay dearly for Netanyahu's insolent answer."
Earlier Wednesday, veteran watchdog group Peace Now issued its 2012 settlement report, calling it a record year for Israeli building activity in the West Bank.
According to the report, Israel began construction on more than 1,700 apartments in settlements throughout the West Bank, approximately one-third of those east of the Israeli-built separation barrier in isolated settlements outside of the large blocs. Nearly 20% of construction took place in illegal outposts.
The outgoing Netanyahu government has used settlements to "systematically undermine and render impossible a realistic, viable two-state solution," Peace Now's report charged.