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How Israel warms up for a settlement freeze

Netanyahu's government painted the approval of more than 450 new units Monday as a way to placate right-wing constituents before agreeing to US demands for a halt to construction.

Palestinian labourers stand near houses under construction in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Har Gilo near Jerusalem on Monday.

Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

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Israel approved the building of more than 450 new homes in Jewish settlements on Monday, just weeks before possible Israeli-Palestinian talks on the sidelines of the annual United Nations gathering in New York.

The move drew sharp criticism from US and Palestinian leaders, which have pushed hard for a settlement freeze in the West Bank as the first step to relaunching Mideast peace talks. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government cast the approval as a prelude to such a freeze, painting it as an effort to secure the cooperation of his right-wing constituents who could otherwise wreak havoc.

"This is a way of telling the right, I'm still with you," says Michael Feige, an expert on the settlement issue at Ben Gurion University who says Mr. Netanyahu is trying to simultanously answer the pressures of both settlers and the US.

The green light on new building fails to have placated settlers, however, who criticized the number of housing units – a roughly 20 percent increase to the 2,500 homes already under construction – as too few to be meaningful.

Not so for the Palestinians. The permits were issued for new building in major settlement blocs near Jerusalem, which will shore up Israeli demands that those areas become part of the Jewish state in any eventual peace deal – cutting further into the territory Palestinians claim for a future state. In addition, Israel wants the units under construction to be excluded from any freeze.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Monday's decision made a farce of any future halt to building.

"Israel's decision to approve the construction of over 450 new settlement units nullifies any effect that a settlement freeze, when and if announced, will have," Erekat said in a statement.

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