Israel Moves on 450 New West Bank Homes Amid U.S. Strains

Israel pressed ahead with plans to build 450 homes in West Bank settlements weeks before its parliamentary election, drawing condemnation from the U.S. at a time when relations are already strained over Iran.

The Israel Land Authority published tenders on its website on Thursday soliciting developers to build the homes, a process that could take years. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki criticized the decision as counterproductive to efforts to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians, who claim the West Bank for their hoped-for state.

“Our view is that issuing these tenders does nothing to bolster Israel’s security, increase its prosperity or further the cause of peace,” Psaki told reporters in Washington on Friday. “That’s a point that we’re making clear to them on the ground privately, as well.”

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the record, said the procedures applied to housing that had been authorized and announced a year ago. The Palestine Liberation Organization labeled the construction plans a “war crime,” an allegation that has added resonance now that the Palestinians have moved to join the International Criminal Court, a war crimes tribunal.

‘Always Bluffing’

The latest round of peacemaking, mediated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, broke down in April among mutual recriminations, including Palestinian claims that settlement construction was undermining their efforts to establish a viable state.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in a general denunciation of settlement-building, told the African Union heads of state summit in Addis Ababa that the Israeli government “is always bluffing” by painting itself as desirous of peace while it builds in settlements. His comments were reported by the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa.

The European Union echoed the U.S. criticism, saying in an e-mailed statement on Friday that the proposed new homes “are illegal in international law and constitute an obstacle to peace.”

Looming Polls

The Israeli government took the latest step to expand settlement construction less than seven weeks before March 17 elections in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking a fourth term. Polls show Netanyahu’s Likud trailing a Labor-led ticket that charges him with undercutting peace efforts. The Jewish Home party, headed by Netanyahu’s chief rival for settlers’ votes, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, has gained ground, polls suggest.

The contentious measure is likely to deepen the rift that opened up recently between Israel and its main ally the U.S. over Netanyahu’s plan to address the U.S. Congress on March 3 about the dangers of Iran’s nuclear program.

Netanyahu’s speech wasn’t coordinated with the White House, and critics say it’s meant to compromise President Barack Obama’s efforts to negotiate a deal with the Iranians.

Iran Program

Netanyahu alluded to that spat in e-mailed remarks from his office. “Procedural problems regarding my appearance in the U.S. can be resolved, but if Iran arms itself with nuclear weapons, that will be much harder to solve,” he said.

Iran denies allegations that it aims to build nuclear weapons and says its atomic program is designed for energy production and medical uses.

Republicans and some Democrats are pressing for new sanctions against Iran. Obama said in his State of the Union address this month that he would veto any new proposed penalties that pass Congress while negotiations are under way, saying they could derail the diplomatic process and raise the risk of a military confrontation with Iran.

This week, the Senate Banking Committee approved legislation to impose additional sanctions on Iran if there isn’t a deal curtailing its nuclear program by the end of June.

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