JERUSALEM Israeli officials said they would press on with plans this week to build 6,000 homes for settlers on land claimed by Palestinians, defying criticism from Western powers who fear the move will hit already faint hopes for a peace accord.
Stung by the de facto recognition of Palestinian sovereignty in a U.N. General Assembly vote last month, Israel announced it would expand settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
An Israeli Interior Ministry planning committee on Monday gave preliminary approval for 1,500 new homes in the Ramat Shlomo settlement.
The panel will now start discussing plans for another 4,500 homes in two other settlements, Givat Hamatos and Gilo, in back-to-back sessions that could run into next week, ministry spokesman Efrat Orbach said on Tuesday.
Israel counts the three settlements as part of its Jerusalem municipality though they are on West Bank land seized in the 1967 Middle East war.
Palestinians see the settlements as obstacles to achieving a viable state with a capital in East Jerusalem.
"Settlement activity is unilateral and is completely adverse to the continued viability of a two-state solution and the possibility for our people to continue to exist," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told Reuters on Monday.
Most countries deem the settlements illegal and Western powers have been especially troubled by Israel's declared intent to build in E-1, a wedge of land between East Jerusalem and the West Bank where it had previously held off under U.S. pressure.
On Tuesday, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton joined the chorus of condemnation, saying in a statement the bloc was "deeply dismayed by and strongly opposes" the Israeli plans.
NETANYAHU DEPUTY DEFENDS
Israel says the future Palestine's border should be set in direct negotiations, from which Abbas withdrew two years ago in protest against the settlements.
Israeli officials have accused him of avoiding new talks to avoid having to compromises and because his authority does not extend to the other Palestinian territory, Gaza, which is under rival Hamas Islamists hostile to the Jewish state.
Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon told Israel's Army Radio the expansion of the Jerusalem-area settlements was a resumption of plans put on hold while Western powers tried to persuade Abbas to abandon the Palestinians' U.N. status upgrade.
"We said, 'We won't build, so as not to give Abu Mazen (Abbas) an excuse to go to the U.N. and an excuse not to come to the table,'" Yaalon said.
"After he did what he did ... we removed these restrictions from ourselves," Yaalon added.
He dismissed the international criticism. "The world automatically condemns any construction over the Green Line, and then moves on," he said, referring to the West Bank boundary.
Critics in Israel have suggested Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pandering to the right-wing electorate as he prepares to run for re-election in a January 22 ballot.
(Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Noah Browning; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Andrew Heavens)