, JERUSALEM, Jun 29 – Israel has approved the construction of 50 new housing units in a settlement in the occupied West Bank, army radio reported, despite weeks of pressure from its closest ally Washington.
The decision to build the houses in the Adam settlement north of Jerusalem comes despite repeated calls from the United States 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.
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 on Tuesday, after a meeting between Mitchell and Netanyahu was cancelled last week.
On Sunday, Israeli media reported that 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.
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.
It would also not cover some 2,000 buildings in West Bank settlement blocs that are currently at an advanced stage of construction, mainly public buildings, Israel’s mass-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper reported on Sunday.
The paper recently reported that about 3,200 new housing units were under construction in the West Bank at the end of 2008.
The presence of more than 280,000 Israelis in over 100 settlements scattered across the West Bank has long been one of the thorniest issues in the decades-old conflict.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has said he will not hold any talks with Israel until it halts all settlement activity, which the Palestinians say endangers the viability 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.