JERUSALEM, April 18 (Reuters) - The Israeli government announced plans on Friday to build 100 new homes in two Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, a move Palestinians condemned as another blow to U.S.-brokered peace talks.
A Housing Ministry advertisement published in an Israeli newspaper invited construction firms to bid for the rights to build 48 homes in Ariel, a major West Bank settlement, and another 52 homes in the smaller outlying enclave of Elkana.
The 2003 peace "road map", reaffirmed by Israeli and Palestinian leaders at a conference hosted by U.S. President George W. Bush in November, requires a halt to all settlement activity on occupied land where Palestinians seek statehood. The new tenders drew censure from the administration of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which recently began implementing its own road map obligation of dismantling anti-Israel factions. The security crackdown, however, is taking place only in the West Bank as Abbas lost control of the other Palestinian territory, Gaza, to rival Hamas Islamists last year.
"We condemn these plans and resolutions, which really undermine the peace process," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, adding that Abbas would discuss the issue during White House talks with Bush next week.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in keeping with the previous government’s policy, has vowed to keep West Bank settlement blocs — including Ariel and Elkana — under any future peace accord.
The Olmert government argues that this warrants the continued building of homes within in the settlement blocs, though U.S. officials have consistently demanded a freeze.
"The current government never undertook not to build within settlement blocs," Israeli Housing Minister Zeev Boim said in a statement regarding the Ariel and Elkana tenders.
"Moreover, the current construction is intended to address internal needs of natural growth" in the settlements, he said.
Bush signalled tacit U.S. consent in 2004 to Israel’s proposed annexation of settlement blocs, calling them "new realities on the ground" that had to be taken into consideration when drawing the border of a future Palestinian state.
Olmert, a centrist, is under pressure from nationalist members of his coalition government to keep up construction in West Bank settlements.
But Israel Radio reported that the Ariel and Elkana tenders could be challenged by the centre-left Labour party, Olmert’s biggest coalition partner, given concern they would undermine talks with the Palestinians. (Writing by Dan Williams and Mohammed Assadi, Editing by Alison Williams)