Israel will approve construction of hundreds of new homes in West Bank settlements before weighing a freeze sought by Washington in a move announced on Friday that fuelled Palestinian outrage.
The plan was also certain to anger the U.S. administration which has been pushing for a freeze of Jewish settlements in an effort to restart the stalled Middle East peace process.
"In the next days the prime minister will approve construction starts and then he might consider a freeze for a limited time under certain conditions," an Israeli government official told AFP.
He confirmed a report in the Jerusalem Post that said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would consider a moratorium on settlement construction "for a few months" after the green light is given to build hundreds of new homes in the occupied West Bank.
The English-language newspaper said work on 2,500 housing units which is already under way also would continue as part of the plan widely seen as an attempt to appease far right-wing members of Netanyahu’s hawkish Likud party.
"The only thing suspended by this announcement will be the peace process," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP.
"This is absolutely unacceptable," he said, speaking by telephone from Paris where he is accompanying Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.
Hurdle to Mideast Peace
The international community considers all Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory to be illegal and a major hurdle to Middle East peace efforts that have been at a standstill since December.
Nabil Abu Rdainah, an aide to President Abbas, said that peace talks, suspended since December, could not resume without an Israeli pledge to a total freeze of settlement building.
"The Palestinian … and American position, calls for … a settlement freeze, including ‘natural growth.’ A partial settlement freeze is not enough and there must be a commitment to the obligations of the peace process as stated by President Obama," Abu Rdainah told Reuters.
The Jerusalem Post said any temporary moratorium on construction would be put in place if "conditions are right," including if Arab states move forward with the normalization of ties that Israel is seeking.
A similar report in the Haaretz newspaper said Netanyahu told U.S. officials of his decision to authorize construction a few weeks ago.
"The Americans do not agree and are not happy about it, but we put it on the table a long time ago," the daily quoted an unnamed senior government official as saying. Israeli media said Netanyahu would take up the issue with Washington’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who is due in the region next week.
Erakat insisted Israel had already responded "with total defiance" to U.S. calls for a freeze. "The real Israeli official answer is being conducted on the ground by continuing the building of housing units and settlements," he said.
Obama has taken the public stance that Israel must halt all settlement activity under the "road map". Palestinians say settlements, built on land Israel occupied in a 1967 war, could deny them a viable state.
The United States is seeking to bridge the Israeli and Palestinian positions and persuade Arab states to take steps towards normalizing relations with the Jewish state.
Israel’s Channel 2 television said on Thursday the proposed partial freeze would last for nine months and affect only the West Bank — home to 300,000 Israelis — and not east Jerusalem, where a further 200,000 settlers live.
The Palestinians have refused to resume peace talks until Israel freezes all construction in the West Bank, including annexed east Jerusalem which they want to make the capital of their future state.
"Concerning the peace process, we reaffirmed that we were entirely disposed to go forward with negotiations for the final status if Israel stops settlement building," Abbas said on Thursday.
"This is the main concern of the American administration and of all of our European friends with France leading," he told a joint news conference with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner as he began a visit to Paris.
"I think that we can get a result this month," Abbas said. "Between now and the U.N. General Assembly, we to have found a solution to this problem. Then we will be able to resume peace negotiations."