JERUSALEM Israel published plans on Monday to build 272 homes in settlements in the occupied West Bank even as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up his 10th visit in a year trying to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Palestinians fear Israeli settlements, built on occupied land and deemed illegal by the United Nations, will deny them a viable state and have warned that further construction could derail the talks that Kerry has struggled to keep on track.
The U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian talks resumed in July after a three-year freeze, with Kerry pushing for an agreement within nine months despite skepticism on both sides that a successful outcome is possible.
Israel says it is building settler homes in areas it intends to keep in any final peace agreement.
"What we're seeing today is the implementation of a decision from October," said an official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office.
He was referring to formal publication of the settlement home-building scheme. The public will now have 60 days to voice any opposition before the plan moves forward.
A Defense Ministry official said the plans for 272 more homes in the Ofra and Karnei Shomron settlements were preliminary and must pass a few more stages of authorization before construction began.
Kerry shuttled between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and even visited Jordan and Saudi Arabia, on his latest peacemaking trip in pursuit of a "framework agreement" that would pave the way to a permanent accord.
While Palestinians see a major obstacle in Israel's settlement policy, many Israelis question the credibility of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, especially as Gaza is run by his rivals - Hamas Islamists who oppose peacemaking.
Still, Kerry said on Saturday that Israel and the Palestinians were making progress towards a framework deal but still have some way to go.
While pursuing settlement expansion, Israel has been releasing Palestinian prisoners in four stages as part of U.S.-brokered peace efforts.
In all, 104 long-serving Palestinian inmates, most convicted of killing Israelis, will be freed in what the United States sees as a vital confidence-building measure. Twenty-six were freed last month in the third stage of the releases.
(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Mark Heinrich)