West Bank settlement of Shiloh - Moti Milrod
Construction site in the West Bank settlement of Shiloh, June 21, 2010. Photo by Moti Milrod
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The Defense Ministry gave preliminary approval on Tuesday to a plan to build 600 new homes in Shiloh, a hardline settlement deep inside the West Bank. The move drew rebukes from the United Nations and Palestinians, and threatened to raise tensions with the United States as the prime minister prepares to head to the White House.

Israeli officials played down the decision, saying it was made by a low-level planning committee under the control of the Defense Ministry, and that construction was years away at best.

But the timing of the move may further hinder Mideast peace efforts. It casts a shadow over a trip by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington in March, in which he is expected to discuss Iran's nuclear program and other regional issues.

The United Nations' Mideast envoy, Robert Serry, called the announcement "deplorable" and said it "moves us further away from the goal of a two-state solution."

Speaking to reporters, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. policy on settlement activity is clear. "We don't believe it's in any way constructive to getting both sides back to the negotiating table," he said.

The Palestinians say there is no point negotiating while Israel continues to expand its settlements. After the low-level dialogue launched last month in Jordan failed to make any breakthroughs, Jordan blamed Israel Tuesday for the impasse, citing Israel's "unilateral policies."

One Israeli official said the project was only in the "embryonic" phase and would require "multiple stages of authorizations," including approval by top leaders, that would take years to complete.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity under ministry guidelines.

But Yariv Oppenheimer, director of the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now, called it the biggest settlement construction plan in the West Bank since Netanyahu took office three years ago.

In addition to the construction of 600 homes in Shiloh, Peace Now claimed that yesterday's approval also included retroactive legalization of about 100 homes built without permits. Defense officials could not confirm the claim.

"The government is giving a prize to building offenders and continuing the system by which every time the settlers build without permits, the government approves the construction and allows them even more construction," Peace Now said.

Palestinian spokesman Ghassan Khatib said yesterday's approval "shows how Israel has no respect for the international community or international laws, while at the same time sheds a light on the ... lack of effective actions by the international community toward the Israeli settlement policy."

Netanyahu's office did not return requests for comment.