Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz gave his written approval to begin planning and construction on hundreds of new houses in a number of Judea and Samaria settlements. Defense officials confirmed Wednesday that late last week Mofaz had okayed building programs in Ma'aleh Adumim, Bracha, Nokdim, Givat Ze'ev and Beitar Illit. Mofaz had reportedly hope that the approvals would shore up support for his candidacy to lead the Likud, but just days later the defense minister announced he was quitting the party for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Kadima. According to defense officials, Mofaz gave retroactive approval for about 150 houses in the settlement of Bracha on Mount Grizim, and consented to the planning of 90 additional homes. He also approved the expansion plan for the small settlement o f Nokdim. Furthermore, 48 existing houses there received permanent approval. In Ma'aleh Adumim, Mofaz gave the okay to start building 200 new homes. He also put his signature behind the advancement of construction plans in Givat Ze'ev and Beitar Ilit in the Jerusalem vicinity. Continued construction in Judea and Samaria settlements violates the road map peace plan, but Israeli officials say the expansion is part of the "natural growth" allowed inside the borders of the settlements. Asked for comment, US Embassy spokesman Stewart Tuttle reiterated Washington's position that President Bush has urged the government of Israel to "stop the settlement expansion and to remove illegal outposts." Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the new construction "undermines the vision of a two-state solution." "This is a clear-cut violation of the road map ... and I really hope that President Bush will personally take note of that," he was quoted by AP.