A general view shows the Israeli settlement of Ramot in an area of the occupied West Bank that Israel annexed to Jerusalem January 22, 2017. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun(reuters_tickers)
By Ori Lewis
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel announced plans on Tuesday for 2,500 more settlement homes in the occupied West Bank, the second such declaration since U.S. President Donald Trump took office signalling he could be more accommodating towards such projects than his predecessor.
A statement from the Israeli Defence Ministry, which administers lands Israel captured in a 1967 war, said the decision was meant to fulfil demand for new housing "to maintain regular daily life".
Most of the construction, it said, would be in existing settlement blocs that Israel intends to keep under any future peace agreement with the Palestinians. However, a breakdown provided by the prime minister's office showed large portions of the planned homes would be outside existing blocs.
Trump spoke by phone on Sunday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On Tuesday, the new president's chief spokesman refrained from stating a position on the settlement announcement but said the two leaders would discuss settlement building when they meet in Washington next month.
Asked whether Trump supports the latest settlement announcement, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters: "Israel continues to be a huge ally of the United States. He wants to grow closer with Israel." Pressed again on the issue, he said: "We'll have a conversation with the prime minister."
The muted response from the Trump White House, which has promised an approach more aligned with Israel's government, was a clear departure from Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, whose aides routinely criticized settlement construction plans.
U.N. Middle East envoy Nikolay Mladenov is due to brief the U.N. Security Council behind closed doors on Wednesday at the request of council member Bolivia, diplomats said.
About 350,000 settlers live in the West Bank and a further 200,000 in East Jerusalem, which Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war. Beyond the major blocs, most of which are close to the border with Israel, there are more than 100 settlement outposts scattered across hilltops in the West Bank.
Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the Israeli announcement and said it would have "consequences". The West Bank and East Jerusalem are home to more than 2.6 million Palestinians.
"The decision will hinder any attempt to restore security and stability, it will reinforce extremism and terrorism and will place obstacles in the path of any effort to start a peace process that will lead to security and peace," he said.
Palestinians want the West Bank and Gaza Strip for an independent state, with its capital in East Jerusalem. Israeli troops and settlers withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
OBSTACLE TO PEACE
The European Union said Israel's settlement plans "further seriously undermine the prospects for a viable two-state solution".
Most countries consider settlements illegal and an obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace as they reduce and fragment the territory Palestinians need for a viable state.
Israel disagrees, citing biblical, historical and political connections to the land - which the Palestinians also assert - as well as security interests.
During the U.S. election campaign, Trump indicated he would dispense with Obama's opposition to settlement building, a stance that delighted Netanyahu's government. He was sworn in on Friday.
On Sunday, Israel announced plans for hundreds of new homes in East Jerusalem, and the right-wing Netanyahu told senior ministers he was lifting restrictions on settlement construction across the board.
"We can build where we want and as much as we want," an official quoted Netanyahu as telling the ministers.
Following Tuesday's announcement, the prime minister's office listed some of the West Bank areas scheduled for new construction. Not all were in settlement blocs.
"I have agreed with the defence minister to build 2,500 new homes in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) - we are building and will continue to build," Netanyahu wrote in a tweet. Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman is himself a settler.
The Defence Ministry statement said 100 of the new homes would be in Beit El, a settlement which has received funding from the family of Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, now a White House adviser.
David Friedman, Trump's choice for ambassador to Israel and a staunch supporter of settlers, has served as president of the American Friends of Beit El, a group that raises funds for the settlement.
(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Matt Spetalnick in Washington and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; writing by Ori Lewis; editing by Mark Heinrich, Howard Goller and Andrew Hay)