JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel said on Thursday it would press ahead with plans to build in existing Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, in an apparent bid to appease hardliners opposed to peace talks with the Palestinians.
Local media said new building tenders could be announced next week, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in particular seeks to douse opposition from right-wingers in his government to a planned release of Palestinian prisoners.
“In accordance with understandings reached on the eve of the restart of peace talks with the Palestinians, in the coming months Israel will continue to announce it will build in settlement blocs and in Jerusalem,” part of the statement by the unnamed official said.
“Both the Americans and the Palestinians have been aware of these understandings,” the statement added.
There was no immediate comment from either of those parties.
The announcement came a day after Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met in Rome where the Israeli-Palestinian talks were on the agenda.
The pro-settler Jewish Home party, one of Netanyahu’s main coalition partners, said on Thursday it would propose a bill to bar the release of Palestinian prisoners, which has been linked to the talks.
The U.S.-brokered discussions were revived in July after a three-year hiatus but have shown few signs of progress.
Israel’s chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, said in Tel Aviv on Thursday she could not divulge any details but a senior Palestinian official in the West Bank town of Ramallah described the talks as very difficult.
Jerusalem is one of the most divisive issues in the talks on creating a Palestinian state in territories Israel captured in a 1967 war.
The sides are also divided over the future of Israeli settlements, where borders should run and Palestinian demands for a “right of return” for refugees and their descendants.
Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its “eternal” capital. In a move never recognized internationally, it has annexed the city’s eastern sector.
The settlements that Israel has built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are considered illegal by most countries. Israel cites historical and biblical links to the areas, where about 500,000 Israelis now live alongside 2.5 million Palestinians.
They want those two territories and the Gaza Strip for a future country but fear that more settlement building will deny them a viable state.
Israel withdrew in 2005 from the Gaza Strip, governed by Hamas Islamists who are bitter rivals of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now said last week that housing starts in West Bank settlement are up by 70 percent this year. It said there were 1,708 housing starts in January-June this year, compared with 995 during the same period in 2012.
Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Andrew Heavens