The Housing and Construction Ministry yesterday asked for the submission of bids to build 294 apartments in Betar Ilit and another 42 apartments in Karnei Shomron, both Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
This is a new blow to international efforts to get Israelis and Palestinians back to peace talks after months of deadlock.
Ministry spokesman Ariel Rosenberg made the announcement and said developers who submit the winning bids will have to secure building permits for their plans before construction can begin. He estimated ground would be broken within a year, and that the construction would be completed in about three years.
Freezing settlement construction has been a Palestinian demand that Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas has refused to yield, and one President Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to accept since a ten-month moratorium last year.
The Palestinians say they won't negotiate while Israel builds on lands they want for a future state. Israel rejects that demand and says the future of settlements must be decided in negotiations. Some 500,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The Palestinians are now focusing on gaining recognition of a Palestinian state in September from the United Nations General Assembly. That move could deepen Israel's diplomatic isolation, but would be only a symbolic victory for the Palestinians - changing little for them on the ground.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said yesterday that support for the planned Palestinian declaration of independence at the UN is waning, largely because of intense Israeli lobbying against the initiative. He said a "moral majority" of Western countries will not support the Palestinians, limiting the impact of any resolution.
With the outcome of the vote widely anticipated, the question is which countries, particularly those in Europe, will back the Palestinians? Italy and Germany have already said they will support Israel, while the positions of other key countries like Britain and France remain in question.
Poland's foreign minister has said the European Union is split on the issue, but working on a common position. Poland is holding the rotating presidency of the EU for the next six months.
Ayalon refused to disclose the politics of the individual countries he has lobbied. He said he expects Israel to get widespread backing from the West, citing the 62 countries that abstained from or opposed the UN Goldstone Report on Operation Cast Lead.
Ayalon told reporters he has been crisscrossing the globe to rally support for Israel. He said he personally met with representatives of 45 Latin American and European countries, and believes that many are not going to vote with the Palestinians.
"What seemed to be a landslide for the Palestinians has stopped," Ayalon told reporters.
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