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(photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/ GPO)
The United States on Friday sharply criticized Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's plans to approve new settlement construction, charging the move jeopardizes the Obama administration's efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
"We regret the reports of Israel's plans to approve additional settlement construction," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who took the unusual step of issuing a lengthy statement on the subject following media reports of the building plans.
Netanyahu intends to okay hundreds of new West Bank housing units next week and only then consider a freeze "for a few months" on further construction, a source in the Prime Minister's Office told The Jerusalem Post late on Thursday.
The Prime Minister's Office, however, kept silent regarding the US reaction.
Netanyahu is expected to discuss at Sunday's cabinet meeting his decision to approve new housing units and then agree to a temporary moratorium.
One government official, although refusing to discuss when the new tenders would be issued, how many housing units would be approved or where, said it was clear the building would take place within parameters that had been agreed upon in the past with the US: that no land would be expropriated, and that the construction would take place either inside the construction lines of existing settlements, or - in the large settlement blocs - immediately adjacent to existing communities.
Gibbs said in his statement that "as the president has said before, the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop. We are working to create a climate in which negotiations can take place, and such actions make it harder to create such a climate."
Gibbs did note, however, that "we do appreciate Israel's stated intent to place limits on settlement activity and will continue to discuss this with the Israelis as these limitations are defined."
The statement came after talks between US Middle East envoy George Mitchell and Israeli officials in New York on Wednesday, in what State Department spokesman Ian Kelly had characterized as a "good meeting."
Both sides indicated progress had been made on US demands that Israel halt settlement as part of the American drive to have all parties - Israelis, Palestinians and Arab states - take moves toward peace.
Reports suggest that settlement construction would be frozen for six to nine months, with work already in progress continuing on 2,500 housing units, and east Jerusalem largely excluded under the incipient deal.
But US officials reacted harshly to the new settlement plans and in some cases backtracked on earlier descriptions of the recent talks as positive.
One American official was quoted by The Associated Press as saying the Mitchell meeting had "not gone well" and that once Netanyahu envoy Yitzhak Molcho and Defense Ministry chief of staff Michael Herzog informed Mitchell about the plans, "he told them they could expect a sharp response."
The official was also quoted as saying that Gibbs's statement was released before a formal Israeli announcement of Netanyahu's plans, because "we wanted to send a strong signal early on."
A State Department official told the Post that the new settlement plans were presented as a "fait accompli" by the Israeli government and that there was absolutely no "back-door wink and nod" US approval of the move.
"This makes things harder," the official said, but "this doesn't mean we're going to stop working toward setting the conditions for negotiations."
Israeli officials said they had informed the Obama team well in advance that they were planning to take this step, despite the US president's insistence during the spring and early summer that Israel freeze all construction, including for natural growth and in east Jerusalem.
The administration had seemed recently to ease up on some of its demands, and tried to appear less publicly critical of Israel, which had helped the sides near a resolution which would pave the way for the US to announce the settlement freeze alongside Palestinian and Arab steps as part of a relaunching of formal peace negotiations in the coming weeks.
Yet those moves toward compromise have increased the domestic pressure on Netanyahu from his right-wing coalition, and the new Prime Minister's Office plans seemed aimed at appeasing political contingents wanting more settlement construction.
While Netanyahu might boost his standing with those factions, it could come at the expense of improving Washington-Jerusalem relations that had been strained early in the new administrations of both countries.
Despite the recent announcement, however, Mitchell is set to return to the region next week, State Department officials said.
Kelly described the process the envoy is undertaking as one in which, "We talk very frankly and they talk very frankly... This is, I think, part of the whole process of our discussions. We're being clear, they're being clear."
The EU foreign ministers also condemned the Israeli announcement.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters that the EU's 27 foreign ministers were all against the move.
"The announcement made to build new buildings and new settlements exactly at the moment when all the international community is asking Israel for a freeze has been criticized by the ministers of foreign affairs," Frattini said after the ministers completed the first day of a two-day meeting in Stockholm.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband reiterated EU calls for a complete settlement freeze, to spur the restart of peace talks.
"Our position is absolutely clear and that settlements are illegal and an impediment to peace and that obviously anything in east Jerusalem is particularly difficult," Miliband said.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he was hopeful peace talks could be relaunched on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York later this month.
"There are still a lot of negotiations taking place, but I hope very much we will have some good news, I hope around the General Assembly," Solana said.
EU ministers are supporting US-led efforts to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to peace talks.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the EU was also pressuring Arab countries to rebuild ties with Israel. He suggested Arab countries could open trade offices in Israel and open aviation routes.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was in Cairo on Saturday for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, condemned the Israeli move and reiterated his stance that a total settlement freeze was a condition for restarting talks with Israel.
"The only thing suspended by this announcement will be the peace process," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said of the prime minister's plans.
Herb Keinon and AP contributed to this report.