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Israeli housing plan heightens tension ahead of talks

Palestinians protest new construction in settlements

Israel published bids for 1,000 new housing units in East Jerusalem (above) and West Bank settlements on Sunday, usually the last step before construction can begin.

Bernat Armangue/Associated Press

Israel published bids for 1,000 new housing units in East Jerusalem (above) and West Bank settlements on Sunday, usually the last step before construction can begin.

JERUSALEM — Israel published bids Sunday for the construction of about 1,000 housing units in contested areas of East Jerusalem and several large West Bank settlements, intensifying the already charged atmosphere three days before the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and hours before Israel was to announce the names of Palestinian prisoners to be released this week.

While the planning and building of settlements have continued in the months preceding the talks, causing constant friction, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new governing coalition had so far refrained from issuing construction bids since it was formed in March. The publishing of bids is the final bureaucratic stage before construction can begin.

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Uri Ariel, the housing minister, announced the contentious move while Netanyahu was recovering in a hospital after overnight surgery for a hernia.

“The government of Israel is working to bring down the cost of living in all parts of the country,” Ariel, a member of the pro-settlement Jewish Home Party, said in a statement.

“No country in the world accepts dictates from other countries about where it is allowed to build and where not,” he continued, responding to the international condemnation of Israel’s continuing efforts to build up the settlements.

“This is the right thing now, both from a Zionist perspective and an economic perspective,” he added.

The prime minister’s office offered no immediate comment.

The settlement move appeared intended to appease the right-wing members of the Israeli government ahead of the expected release this week of 26 Palestinian prisoners who have served 20 years or more in prison for deadly attacks against Israelis.

The decision to release 104 prisoners over the coming months is deeply unpopular in Israel. Netanyahu has explained it as a gesture that was necessary to persuade the Palestinian leadership to agree to resume long-stalled negotiations and that was preferable to acceding to other Palestinian demands, including a settlement freeze.

But it appears that the talks Wednesday will be taking place amid a storm of mutual recrimination.

Mohammad Shtayyeh, a senior Palestinian negotiator, issued a statement Sunday saying, “It is clear that the Israeli government is deliberately attempting to sabotage US and international efforts to resume negotiations.” Israel, he said, “continues to use peace negotiations as a smoke screen for more settlement construction.”

Last week, Saeb Erekat, another senior Palestinian negotiator, sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, who had brokered the deal for resuming talks, protesting Israel’s preliminary approval for 800 new homes in the West Bank, many of them in small, isolated settlements likely to be removed as part of any final peace agreement.

Erekat accused Israel of “bad faith” and wrote that it was difficult to see how direct negotiations “will bring about progress towards a peace agreement” without a halt in settlement expansion.

Much of the world views the settlements in territory that Israel seized from Jordan during the 1967 war, and where the Palestinians envision their future state, as a violation of international law.

The United States, which opposes settlement building and views it as illegitimate, has called on each side to exercise restraint and create a positive atmosphere for the talks. Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said last week that the settlement issue had been raised with Israel.

In what appeared to be a move to counter the Palestinian protests, Netanyahu sent a letter to Kerry over the weekend in which he strongly criticized what he described as continuing incitement against Israel by the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, according to officials in the prime minister’s office.

As an example of incitement, Netanyahu cited a statement that Abbas made in late July, just before the first meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Washington, suggesting that a Palestinian state, once established, would not allow the presence of a single Israeli. Netanyahu also cited remarks by an anchorman on the official Palestinian Authority television station who, during a visit to the region by the Barcelona soccer team last week, described Palestine as stretching from Rosh Hanikra to Eilat, including the entire territory that is now Israel.

“Incitement and peace cannot coexist,” Netanyahu wrote in a part of the letter made available by his staff.

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