Defying U.S. and international calls to restrain home-building on disputed land, Israel said Friday it would construct 238 more homes atop territory in East Jerusalem seized during the 1967 Middle East War.
The decision threw U.S.-sponsored peace talks into further doubt and ended a de facto construction freeze in East Jerusalem that had been quietly observed, though never formally declared, since March.
Palestinian officials accused Israel of trying to sabotage American efforts to salvage direct peace talks.
“This is a severe blow to the efforts by the United States and the Arab League to prevent the peace process from collapsing,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Friday. “Once again, Mr. Netanyahu has chosen settlements over peace.”
The new plans come as Palestinians are threatening to quit peace talks over Israel’s recent resumption of housing construction in the West Bank, which Israel had temporarily restricted as a goodwill gesture.
A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment, referring inquires to the Housing Ministry, where officials did not return phone calls Friday.
The new homes, in the Ramot and Pisgat Zeev sections of East Jerusalem, were part of a tender offer for 3,500 homes nationwide.
Israel has defended its construction in disputed parts of Jerusalem, saying Israel annexed the land. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. The International Court of Justice and most nations view the Israeli construction as illegal settlements.
The last major project planned on disputed land in Jerusalem was a 1,600-unit expansion in Ramat Shlomo, announced during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden. After the Obama administration reacted angrily to what it saw as a diplomatic slight, Jewish construction in many East Jerusalem areas was quietly suspended.
Despite pressure from the United Nations, the United States and others, Israel refused to extend its West Bank housing restrictions beyond Sept. 26.
Since then, the U.S. has been working on possible compromises, including a two-month building moratorium, to bring Palestinians back to the negotiating table, but so far Netanyahu has given no clues about whether he will accept another freeze.
“We were disappointed by the announcement of new tenders in East Jerusalem,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Friday in Washington. “It is contrary to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties.”
Netanyahu is caught between rising international pressure to show Israel’s commitment to the peace process and demands from conservatives in his coalition, who have called the U.S. peace process futile. The Housing Ministry, which announced the latest tender, is run by the Shas party, one of the coalition’s conservative members.
Netanyahu has in recent days made efforts to appease conservatives by endorsing a controversial new loyalty oath for would-be non-Jewish citizens. He has also made public calls for Palestinians to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.”
Experts say it’s unclear whether the prime minister is moving to the right because he has given up on peace talks or is trying to mollify conservatives to lessen the backlash should he decide to renew a West Bank housing freeze.