Defying mounting international protests, Israel moved ahead Wednesday with plans for a West Bank settlement project near Jerusalem that has been widely condemned as diminishing prospects for a territorially viable Palestinian state.
An Israeli planning committee approved release of the plan for public objections, a first step in a process that could take months and is subject to government approval before building can begin.
Still, the move demonstrated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's determination to advance the project, part of a settlement construction surge announced last week in response to a successful bid by the Palestinians to upgrade their status at the United Nations to that of a non-member observer state.
Israeli commentators have suggested that Netanyahu's reaction was driven largely by domestic political considerations, casting it as an effort to appeal to rightist voters ahead of parliamentary elections next month. His challengers have accused him of deepening Israel's diplomatic isolation.
The United States and other nations have criticized the settlement building plans as undermining efforts to reach a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Eleven countries, including key European nations and Egypt, have summoned Israeli ambassadors this week to lodge formal protests.
The Palestinian leadership decided Tuesday to seek a binding resolution at the U.N. Security Council requiring Israel to halt its settlement drive, which includes building 3,000 homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas that the Palestinians seek as part of a future state.
U.S. and European officials have expressed particular alarm over a parallel move to advance plans for additional construction of more than 3,000 homes in a key West Bank area known as E-1, east of Jerusalem, connecting the city with the large settlement of Maaleh Adumim.
Successive U.S. administrations have strongly opposed the development, saying that it would drive a wedge between the northern and southern West Bank, undermining the possibility of a geographically contiguous Palestinian state.
Israel suspended work in the E-1 zone several years ago under pressure from the United States, although it has built its West Bank police headquarters there, as well as roads and infrastructure for future housing.
Israeli intentions to build in E-1 date to the 1990s, with successive governments viewing the area as a land reserve for the eventual expansion of Maaleh Adumim, linking it to Jerusalem. Israel has long considered the settlement town of 40,000 to be a Jerusalem suburb that should remain under Israeli control in any agreement with the Palestinians.
But the Palestinians see E-1 as a vital hinterland for East Jerusalem, which they seek as their future capital. They consider the zone, 3,000 acres of barren hills populated by Bedouin shepherds, as a potential part of East Jerusalem's metropolitan area, linked to Ramallah in the north and Bethlehem in the south, forming the urban core of a future state.
On Wednesday, the planning council of the Israeli military administration in the West Bank approved "the deposit of plans" for the E-1 development for public objections, according to a statement from the Israeli Defense Ministry. "These are not building permits," the statement said. "The start of construction requires approval by the political echelon."
Netanyahu, who was in Germany on Wednesday for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel, made the same point in an interview with the newspaper Die Welt. "What we've advanced so far is only planning, and we will have to see," he said, according to an excerpt of his remarks provided by his spokesman. "We shall act further based on what the Palestinians do. If they don't act unilaterally, then we won't have any purpose to do so either."
Speaking to reporters in Ramallah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the E-1 project a "red line" and said Palestinians would fight it with all "legal means" at their disposal.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, warned of dire consequences if Israel follows through with its plans for construction in E-1 and in a West Bank area annexed to Jerusalem known as Givat Hamatos. Israeli building in the latter area, expected to be approved this month, would further separate the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to Palestinian officials.
If the two developments are built, "it's over," Erekat told Israel Television in remarks broadcast Tuesday.
"Don't talk about peace. Don't talk about a two-state solution," Erekat said. "Talk about a one-state reality between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean."