Israeli government okays new West Bank settlement construction, official says

Israel approved the construction of 3,000 homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, a government official said Friday, drawing swift criticism from the Palestinians a day after their successful U.N. recognition bid.

The Palestinians strongly condemned the announcement and repeated their refusal to start peace negotiations while building continued. With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently poised for re-election and insisting that any negotiations begin without preconditions, prospects for peace appear to be going into deep freeze.

The unusually large building plan came a day after the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem as a non-member observer state, setting off jubilant celebrations among Palestinians.

Israel fiercely objected to the U.N. upgrade, saying peace could only come from direct negotiations and unilateral moves would harm that prospect. The Palestinians said the U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state in the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war was an attempt to salvage a possible peace deal and could bolster talks.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to negotiate with Israeli while settlement construction continues in occupied territories, saying Israel's settlement expansion on war-won land was making a partition deal increasingly difficult.

Prior to word of the Israeli decision, Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh insisted that position hadn't changed, saying settlement building "is not just illegal, it's against the resolution."

More than 500,000 Israelis have moved to the West Bank and east Jerusalem since Israel capturing those territories and Gaza in 1967. Israel unilaterally withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005.

Netanyahu says negotiations must begin without preconditions.

The Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the sensitive issue publicly, said Israel also decided to begin preliminary work in other areas of the West Bank, including the charged E-1 corridor that connects Jerusalem with the settlement bloc of Maaleh Adumim.

Construction there would place a major obstacle for Palestinian statehood by cutting off east Jerusalem from the West Bank and plans there had previously blocked by the Bush administration for that reason.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the Israeli announcement, saying Israel was "defying the whole international community and insisting on destroying the two-state solution."

He said the Palestinian leadership was studying its options.

Danny Seidemann, a lawyer for Ir Amim, an Israeli group that supports coexistence in Jerusalem, said construction did not appear imminent and there was "quite a lot of drama" in the Israeli announcement.

"There an element of sticking it to the Palestinians," he said, before adding that plans in E-1 were not only a blow to the Palestinians but to the Americans who oppose them too. "E-1 is the judgment day weapons."

Yesh Din, an Israeli rights group, called the Israeli decision "collective punishment" and called on Israel to retract its move.

"Israel should have understood by now that such behavior ... will no longer be tolerated by the international community," said Yesh Din's Executive Director Haim Erlich.

Earlier this month, Israel said it was pushing forward construction of 1,200 new homes in Jewish settlements, in an apparent warning to the Palestinians to rethink their U.N. plan. Israel fears the Palestinians will use their upgraded status to confront Israel in international bodies and extort it to make concessions.

In recent days, though, Israel had appeared to step back from its initial threats of harsh retaliation.

Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the onetime chief negotiator with the Palestinians, also slammed the decision.

"The decision at the U.N. on a Palestinian state is bad for Israel and so is Netanyahu's response," said Livni, who this week launched a new opposition party. "The decision to build thousands of housing units as punishment to the Palestinians only punishes Israel ... the unnecessary statement only isolates Israel further."

The results of the U.N. vote were a foregone conclusion, given the sympathies of nearly all member states. Only nine states opposed the bid, including Israel and the United States, while 138 supported it. Unlike the more powerful U.N. Security Council, there are no vetoes in the General Assembly, and the resolution to raise the Palestinian status only required a majority vote for approval.

The vote granted Abbas an overwhelming international endorsement for his key position: establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. Netanyahu opposes a full pullback to the 1967 lines.

The Palestinians turned to the U.N. after two decades of on-again, off-again talks.

Netanyahu dismissed the U.N. vote as meaningless and accused Abbas of delivering a "defamatory and venomous" U.N. speech "full of mendacious propaganda" against Israel.