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BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany on Monday criticised Israeli plans to expand settlements in the occupied West Bank, in unusually explicit terms a week before the two countries' leaders meet in Berlin.
The comments, made by Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman, coincide with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle's first trip to Israel and are in response to Israel's approval last week of plans to build 900 new homes near Jerusalem.
Germany has traditionally been softer than many other nations in its criticism of Israel due to the legacy of the Holocaust in which the Nazis killed 6 million Jews, but politicians have recently adopted a sharper tone.
"We greatly regret the recent decision to allow the construction of new homes in East Jerusalem," spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm told reporters at a regular news conference.
"Settlement building in East Jerusalem is a major stumbling block on the road towards sustainable progress in the Middle East peace process," he said, adding Merkel would discuss the matter with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next week.
Netanyahu and other top Israeli cabinet ministers travel to Berlin next week to meet their German counterparts.
U.S. President Barack Obama has also criticised Israel's latest plans but Netanyahu rejects Washington's calls for a settlement freeze, arguing Israel has to accommodate what he calls the "natural growth" of settler families.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he will not renew negotiations with Israel unless it agrees to freeze settlement expansion.
(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Reuters