TEL AVIV // Israel has unveiled plans to build 625 new homes in a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, in the latest move that is likely to trigger tensions with the Palestinians and dim prospects for renewed peace talks.
The plan to build the houses in Pisgat Zeev was confirmed by Israel late on Wednesday after it won the nod of a committee of the country's interior ministry last week.
Palestinians blasted the decision as harmful to the peace process while anti-settlement activists said that it reflected the Israeli government's intention to approve as many housing plans as possible in East Jerusalem as it faces US pressure to impose a construction moratorium.
"This is a message to the Americans that Israel does not want the peace talks or a new freeze," said Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. "It confirms Palestinian fears that the Israeli government is committed to consolidating its occupation of Palestinian territory rather than ending it as a way to reach peace."
The announcement came just hours after Avigdor Lieberman, the ultranationalist Israeli foreign minister, declared that the country should stop implementing freezes on settlement construction. He also suggested that the previous 10-month moratorium, which expired on September 26, was a failure.
"We have seen that it did not succeed in leading to any breakthrough in negotiations," Mr Lieberman said in a radio interview. "It's not the solution - I think that is clear today. There are no more freezes. We should remove that word from the lexicon."
Mr Lieberman's comments appear to be a sign that Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, may have a harder time than had been expected in winning enough support from his predominantly right-wing, pro-settler coalition for another freeze.
Israeli media has previously reported that the premier is close to garnering the backing of a thin majority of his 15-member security cabinet, the forum slated to vote on the moratorium, for the move. Aside from Mr Lieberman, who heads the second-biggest party in the coalition, several other government ministers - including from Mr Netanyahu's Likud party - have balked at halting settlement construction.
The US has launched intense efforts to salvage the deadlocked Middle East peace talks whose resumption it had organised in early September. The negotiations were suspended just weeks after they were renewed with much fanfare at a White House ceremony after Israel rejected the Palestinian demand to extend the previous settlement freeze.
Jewish construction in East Jerusalem appears to be a major obstacle in restarting negotiations. Mr Netanyahu has insisted that the US-proposed moratorium for another three months would not include East Jerusalem, which Israel considers as part of its capital. Palestinians want the area as the capital of their future state.
Pisgat Zeev, a hillside sprawl of townhouses and apartment blocks which has some 50,000 inhabitants, was founded 25 years ago and is on the city's northeastern edge. It was built on West Bank land that Israel annexed to its Jerusalem municipality immediately after the 1967 war.
The construction of the 625 homes is still at least two or three years away because the plan is subject to final governmental approval and a lengthy process of issuing building tenders, activists said.
With the Pisgat Zeev homes, Israel has already announced that it is advancing plans for the construction of more than 2,000 homes in East Jerusalem since September's expiry of the freeze. In contrast, it had unveiled no such plans in the previous half year, following an embarrassment with Washington over tenders disclosed during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden in March.
Hagit Ofran, a director at the Israeli anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now, said the timing of the announcement was no coincidence.
"Netanyahu is trying to get as many facts on the ground as possible during this window of opportunity while there is no freeze," she said. "He is buying time and not giving the Americans an answer on a new possible freeze in order to get as many new projects as possible in East Jerusalem."
On Monday, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, warned in a message to a United Nations event marking a day of solidarity with the Palestinians that Israel's settlement activities have become a "time bomb" that could ruin the prospects for peace at any moment.
Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the UN, said at the event that the continued building constitutes "a serious blow to the credibility of the peace process."