JERUSALEM // An Israeli planning committee yesterday granted final approval for the construction of 69 settler homes in East Jerusalem on the eve of a visit by the US secretary of state.
The approval was given by the municipal planning committee just hours before John Kerry touched down in Amman to start his fifth visit to the region since February, as he steps up efforts to draw Israel and the Palestinians back into direct negotiations.
"This is blind provocation against Kerry," said Meir Margalit, a city councillor who is a member of the left-wing Meretz party. "It proves just how much the government of Bibi [Benjamin] Netanyahu wants peace," he said, using the nickname of the Israeli prime minister.
The homes will be built in Har Homa, a settlement neighbourhood in the southern sector of Arab East Jerusalem that was occupied by Israel during the 1967 war and then annexed, a move that was not recognised by the international community.
The contentious decision was likely to set tempers flaring a day before Mr Kerry travels to Jerusalem for talks with Mr Netanyahu.
Before the approval was announced, Mr Kerry yesterday said he was optimistic that the Israelis and Palestinians were committed to reviving peace talks.
"I believe they believe the peace process is bigger than any one day or one moment, or certainly more important to their countries than some of their current political challenges," he said in Kuwait with Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al Sabah, the foreign minister.
In what appeared to be a sign that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, wanted the peace process to move forward, Palestinians shelved an application to the UN's cultural agency to have a West Bank village named as a world heritage site.
A Palestinian official said the request to have Unesco recognise Battir was postponed indefinitely as a gesture to Mr Kerry.
* With additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press