JERUSALEM – Israel said Monday it will build more than 200 new homes in Jewish West Bank settlements — a blow to peace efforts despite word that Ariel Sharon's new party plans a major push for Palestinian statehood if it wins upcoming elections.
In a separate sign of accommodation, Israeli officials said they will likely permit east Jerusalem's Palestinians to vote in next month's Palestinian election. Israel had recently threatened to bar east Jerusalem residents from voting.
The latest settlement construction, revealed in newspaper ads published Monday seeking bids from contractors, would violate Israel's commitments under the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.
The plans include a total of 228 homes in the settlements of Beitar Illit and Efrat — both just outside Jerusalem.
The road map calls for a freeze on all settlement construction in the West Bank, which the Palestinians claim as part of a future independent state. Since accepting the plan in June 2003, Israel has continued to expand settlements. The Palestinians also have not carried out their road map obligation to disarm militant groups.
Raanan Gissin, spokesman for the prime minister, said plans for the latest construction began more than five years ago and would take place in existing communities. He also noted that the construction would be in settlements that Israel plans to retain after a final peace settlement with the Palestinians.
"These are the large settlement blocs, they will be strengthened," he said.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the expansion and urged the U.S. to intervene. U.S. Embassy spokesmen in Israel were not immediately available for comment.
The settlement plans came as Sharon's new political party, Kadima, signaled it is ready to hand over West Bank territory to the Palestinians and work toward an independent Palestinian state after the March 28 elections. Opinion polls forecast a strong victory by Sharon's bloc.
Sharon left the hard-line Likud Party last month to form Kadima, saying he would have more freedom to negotiate a peace deal. Many Likud members remain furious with Sharon following his withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in September.
A draft of Kadima's election platform published Monday calls for conceding more land to the Palestinians as part of peace talks culminating in a Palestinian state. The talks would be based on the road map, which endorses a Palestinian state but says its borders must be reached through negotiations.
"The basic tenet of the peace process is two national states," says the platform. Party spokesman Lior Chorev said the draft, detailed in the Maariv daily, was expected to be approved by next week.
With the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon became the first Israeli leader to turn over captured territory to the Palestinians. Since leaving the Likud, the former patron of the settlement movement has made it clear that giving up more land, including parts of the biblical Land of Israel in the West Bank, is necessary to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel. More than 2 million Palestinians live in the West Bank.
The Kadima platform, which reflects views Sharon has expressed in the past, says Israel's existence "requires giving up part of the Land of Israel."
Still, the platform would fall short of Palestinian claims to all of Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. The platform rules out any withdrawal from Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its eternal capital.
In a separate development, Israeli officials said the government may drop its opposition to allowing Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem vote in next month's Palestinian elections.
Israel threatened last week to bar voting in east Jerusalem since the Islamic group Hamas is participating — a warning that infuriated the Palestinians.
Control of Jerusalem is one of the central disputes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. An Israeli official said the government is now considering ways to allow the thousands of Palestinians living in east Jerusalem to vote, without infringing on Israel's sovereignty over the city.
The plan would probably allow some Palestinians to vote in post offices or outlying neighborhoods — as they have in the past. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan has not been approved yet.
Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, said the Palestinian Authority has not received formal word of the plan.