Israel has approved the construction of 50 new housing units in a settlement in the occupied West Bank, army radio reported today, despite weeks of pressure from its closest ally, the United States. The decision to build the houses in the Adam settlement north of Jerusalem comes despite repeated calls from the US for Israel to halt all settlement activity in order to relaunch peace talks with the Palestinians.
The houses will be built for the relocation of some 200 settlers living in nearby Migron, one of the largest of the so-called outpost settlements, which are illegal under Israeli law, army radio reported. But the 50 houses would be part of a larger project to build about 1,450 new housing units in the settlement, it added. The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said his right-wing government will not build new settlements in the occupied territories but will not halt the so-called "natural growth" of existing settlements.
That position has put Israel on a collision course with US President Barack Obama's administration, which has demanded a complete halt to settlements and vowed to vigorously pursue the Middle East peace process. The decision came shortly before Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak was to fly to New York to meet with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell tomorrow, after a meeting between Mr Mitchell and Mr Netanyahu was cancelled last week.
On Sunday, Israeli media reported that Mr Barak planned to offer a three-month building freeze in the settlements, excluding existing projects that are nearing completion, as a compromise to the White House demands. Mr Barak declined to confirm or deny such a plan, telling reporters that the issue "hasn't been fully finalised yet" and that settlements were one of several topics he planned to discuss with the US envoy.
The possible freeze would not apply to settlements in mostly Arab east Jerusalem, which Israel occupied and annexed in 1967 and which the Palestinians have demanded as the capital of their future state. The international community considers all settlements built on land occupied in the 1967 Six Day war to be illegal, and last week the Group of Eight and the Middle East diplomatic Quartet - the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia - called for a complete settlement freeze.