The United States said on Monday that Israel's approval of building 112 new Jewish homes in the West Bank did not violate a limited Israeli settlement freeze but was the kind of act both sides should be cautious about as they embark on indirect peace talks.
"On the one hand, it does not violate the moratorium that the Israelis previously announced. On the other hand, this is the kind of thing that both sides have to be cautious as we move ahead with these parallel talks," U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters.
"When you are in talks of this kind, you have to recognize the interests and perceptions of the other side, and both sides should be cautious about actions that might be either misperceived within the region or that might be exploited by those who want to create obstacles," he added.
Earlier, U.S. special envoy George Mitchell said he was pleased both sides had accepted holding "indirect talks" mediated by the United States, that they had begun to discuss the "structure and scope" of the talks and that he would return to the region next week to continue those discussions.
It was unclear, however, whether the indirect talks had already begun. Crowley told reporters he thought they had.
"I believe they have started," Crowley said. "I think they are underway." Pressed on whether he was sure the indirect talks had begun, Crowley said: "I am certain."
Israel authorized the construction of 112 new apartments in the West Bank despite a pledge to slow settlement building, the government disclosed Monday - a decision that enraged the Palestinians a day after they reluctantly agreed to resume peace talks.
Word of the new construction in the Beitar Illit settlement came amid a flurry of activity by the U.S. to try to salvage peacemaking.
Under heavy U.S. pressure, Israel agreed in November to restrict building in the West Bank to some 3,000 apartments whose construction was already underway. But it rejected any curbs in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want for their future capital.
The government said at the time that exceptions to the slowdown could be allowed, and on Monday, the Ministry of Defense said an exception was made in the case of the ultra-Orthodox Beitar Illit because of what it termed safety issues.
On Sunday, Palestinian leaders agreed to hold U.S.-brokered peace talks with Israel for four months, ending a 14-month breakdown. In so doing, they backed off from a demand that Israel freeze all building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem before they would return to the negotiating table.
On Monday, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused Israel of trying to undermine the talks even before they began.
"If the Israeli government wants to sabotage [Mideast envoy George] Mitchell's efforts by taking such steps, let's talk to Mitchell about maybe not doing this [indirect talks] if the price is so high," Erekat said.
Israeli anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now also questioned Israel's motives.
"The Israeli government is welcoming the [U.S.] vice president by demonstrating, to our regret, that it has no genuine intention to advance the peace process," said the group's settlement expert, Hagit Ofran.
Israel accepted the indirect talks last week. It is not clear when the talks will officially begin.
The Palestinians broke off the talks after Israel launched its bruising offensive in the Gaza Strip in December 2008, aimed at stopping years of rocket attacks on Israeli towns.
Vice President Joseph Biden is due to land later Monday on the highest-level visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories by an Obama administration official.
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