Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected Western and Arab complaints that the planned construction of 1,100 new homes in Gilo on annexed land close to Jerusalem would complicate Middle East peace efforts.
"Gilo is not a settlement nor an outpost. It is a neighbourhood in the very heart of Jerusalem about five minutes from the centre of town," Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev said.
In every peace plan on the table in the past 18 years Gilo "stays part of Jerusalem and therefore this planning decision in no way contradicts" the current Israel government's desire for peace based on two states for the two peoples, he added.
Netanyahu also stressed the construction approval announced was a "preliminary planning decision".
The United States, Europe and Arab states said the announcement would complicate efforts to renew peace talks and defuse a crisis over a Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations.
Britain and EU called on Netanyahu to reverse the decision, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said new settlement building would be "counter-productive".
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas applied at the UN on Friday for full Palestinian membership, a move opposed by Israel and the United States, which urged him to resume negotiations with Israel to end the 63-year-old conflict.
Abbas has made a cessation of Israeli settlement building a condition for returning to talks which collapsed a year ago after Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial moratorium on construction.
The so-called Quartet of international mediators - the United States, the European Union, Russia and the UN - has called for talks to begin within a month and urged both sides not to take unilateral actions that could block peacemaking.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the new housing units Israel wants to build represented "1,100 'noes' to the Quartet statement" urging a resumption of negotiations.
Gilo is a suburban settlement that Israel erected on land it captured in the West Bank in a 1967 war and annexed unilaterally as part of its declared capital, Jerusalem.
Palestinians want to create a state in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and say settlements could deny them a viable country.
Israel's Interior Ministry said a district planning committee approved the Gilo project and public objections to the proposal could be lodged within a 60-day review period, after which construction could begin.
| WORLD News