Israel’s prime minister has blocked plans from his own government to build 25,000 homes in disputed West Bank settlements.
Benjamin Netanyahu said the construction blueprints which came to light yesterday risked causing an “unnecessary confrontation” with the international community, at a time when Israel is trying to persuade the rest of the world to keep up pressure on Iran’s nuclear programme.
The plans were tabled by the country’s housing ministry at the end of last month, but went more or less unnoticed until they were exposed by a report from the anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now.
The ministry sought approval for nearly 20,000 apartments in the West Bank and around 4,000 in east Jerusalem – news which provoked an immediate and angry backlash from Palestinian negotiators and US observers.
In a statement, Mr Netanyahu said he had asked his housing minister, Uri Ariel, to “reconsider” the plan. He noted that Mr Ariel, a member of the pro-settlement Jewish Home Party, had drawn up the plan “without any advance co-ordination”.
“This step does not contribute to settlement. On the contrary, there is damage here for settlement,” Mr Netanyahu said.
“This is a meaningless step - legally and in practice - and an action that creates an unnecessary confrontation with the international community at a time when we are making an effort to persuade elements in the international community to reach a better deal with Iran.”
The statement said Mr Ariel had accepted the request.
New construction plans in disputed settlement areas are a major stumbling block for ongoing peace talks between Israel and Palestine, which only restarted in July after a five year hiatus.
They have also been denounced as illegal by the rest of the world, and come at a time when Mr Netanyahu wants to prevent international powers from easing trade restrictions on Iran and letting it continue its nuclear programme.
Palestine claims the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in 1967, for an independent state. They say Israeli settlement construction on occupied lands is a sign of bad faith.
Yesterday the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said that at the instruction of his president he had contacted the US, Russia, the European Union, the United Nations and the Arab League to voice objections.
“I informed them that if Israel implements this decision, then this means the end of the negotiations and the end of the peace process,” Mr Erekat had said.
Meanwhile, Israeli police said a soldier was pronounced dead in hospital today after he was stabbed multiple times in an attack in the north of the country.
A police commander said a 16-year-old Palestinian has been apprehended over the incident, which took place on Wednesday in the town of Afula.
There has been a rise in deadly violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank since talks restarted, yet another factor undermining progress in the faltering negotiations.