September 4, 2009 - 12:00am
A Palestinian protester argues with Israeli soldiers near the Jewish West Bank settlement of Bracha
Israel will approve construction of West Bank settlement homes before it considers a freeze sought by Washington, a top government official said on Friday, sparking Palestinian outrage.
The plan is also certain to anger the US administration, which has pushed for a freeze of Jewish settlements in an effort to restart the stalled Middle East peace process.
"In the next days the prime minister will approve construction starts and then he might consider a freeze for a limited time under certain conditions," the official told AFP, asking not to be identified.
He confirmed a report in the Jerusalem Post saying Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would consider a moratorium on settlement construction "for a few months" after the green light is given to build hundreds of new homes in the occupied West Bank.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat reacted sharply, saying "the only thing suspended by this announcement will be the peace process."
"This is absolutely unacceptable," he said told AFP by telephone from Paris, where he is accompanying Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
In another reaction, France said such a move was contrary to Israel's commitments in the Middle East peace process.
"It is evidently totally contrary to the spirit of the peace process and Israeli engagements and to the dynamic of the peace process," foreign ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier told reporters in Paris.
"Our position is without any ambiguity. We condemn it."
Israeli media reports said work on 2,500 housing units already under way would continue as part of the plan widely seen as an attempt to appease far right-wing members of Netanyahu's hawkish Likud party.
The international community considers all Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory to be illegal and a major hurdle to Middle East peace efforts that have been at a standstill since December.
Palestinian labourers work at a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev
The Jerusalem Post said any temporary moratorium on construction would happen if "conditions are right," including if Arab states move forward with the normalisation of ties that Israel is seeking.
A similar report in the Haaretz newspaper said Netanyahu told US officials of his decision to authorise construction a few weeks ago.
"The Americans do not agree and are not happy about it, but we put it on the table a long time ago," the daily quoted an unnamed senior official as saying.
Israeli media said Netanyahu would take up the issue with Washington's Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who is due in the region next week.
Erakat insisted Israel had already responded "with total defiance" to US calls for a freeze. "The real Israeli official answer is being conducted on the ground by continuing the building of housing units and settlements," he said.
The mass-selling Yediot Aharonot daily called the move "one giant leap for the right wing in Israel, one small step for mankind."
"Netanyahu is walking a thin political wire. In order not to bring down on himself a rebellion in the Likud faction, he has to sweeten the suspension pill with promises to approve construction plans for hundreds of housing units before the agreement goes into effect; but he has to do this without betraying the trust of the Americans, without giving the Arab states a good excuse to get out of the agreement," it said.
On Thursday, Israel's Channel 2 television said the partial freeze would last for nine months and affect only the West Bank -- home to 300,000 Israelis -- and not east Jerusalem, where a further 200,000 settlers live.
The Palestinians have refused to resume peace talks until Israel freezes all construction in the West Bank, including annexed east Jerusalem, which they want as the capital of their future state.
"Concerning the peace process, we reaffirmed that we were entirely disposed to go forward with negotiations for the final status if Israel stops settlement building," Abbas said on Thursday.
"This is the main concern of the American administration and of all of our European friends with France leading," he told a joint news conference with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in Paris.