JERUSALEM — In a move certain to threaten both the stability of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's fragile coalition and renewed peace talks with the Palestinians, the Israeli Civil Administration gave preliminary approval Thursday for the construction of almost 900 new homes in the West Bank.
The military-run Civil Administration is the ruling authority in the occupied territory. It announced its decision despite the recent resumption of US-sponsored peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, three years after they stalled.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat protested the move in a letter addressed to US Secretary of State John Kerry, who brokered the latest talks.
Erekat called it proof of "Israel's bad faith and lack of seriousness," according to released excerpts. Unless Israeli settlement building is halted, he wrote, it is hard to see how negotiations can produce a peace agreement.
The United States has long stated that any "unilateral actions" — including settlement-building, which most of the world considers illegal — are "unhelpful" for the future of peace negotiations.
The US State Department said it had raised its "concerns" over the new homes with the Israeli government.
"We do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity and oppose any efforts to legitimize settlement outposts," spokewoman Jen Psaki said Thursday, adding, however, that Kerry "has made clear that he believes both of the negotiating teams are at the table in good faith and are committed to working together to make progress."
US Middle East envoy Martin Indyk is expected back in the region early next week.
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“The recent Israeli decision to push for hundreds of new settlement units in addition to the incentives for settlers is consistent with the pro-colonization approach of Mr. Netanyahu and his coalition partners who are determined to make Secretary Kerry’s initiatives fail," said PLO Executive Committee member and former Palestinian negotiator Dr. Hanan Ashrawi.
"This is their way to sabotage Mr. Kerry’s effort to begin peace talks. With their policies Israel is effectively annexing the Occupied West Bank.”
Just one day earlier, amid rumors that the Palestine Liberation Organization strongly opposed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' decision to resume peace talks before a settlement freeze, Abbas cancelled a PLO faction meeting without explanation and flew to Saudi Arabia.
Also on Wednesday, an Israeli construction firm was granted permission to build 63 housing units in the East Jerusalem Arab neighborhood of Jebbel Mukhaber.
For construction of the 878 homes green-lighted Thursday to go ahead, this latest Israeli decision will require cabinet approval.
It's sure to provoke a clash between moderate factions who support the renewed peace talks, including Justice Minister Tsipi Livni, who is Israel's chief negotiator, and most of Netanyahu's own party. Several members of the right-leaning Likud have openly expressed their skepticism about the talks, which the Palestinians agreed to only after Netanyahu got his cabinet to agree to the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners.
A second round of talks is due to begin in Jerusalem on Aug. 14, US officials confirmed Thursday.