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After U.N. vote, Netanyahu authorizes new building in settlements

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JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has authorized construction of 3,000 new homes and planning for thousands more in West Bank settlements and in East Jerusalem, a senior government official said Friday, a day after the United Nations voted to upgrade the Palestinians’ status there to an observer state.

The move, a first Israeli response to the decision by the international body, drew sharp denunciations from Palestinian officials and a rebuke from Washington, which had backed Israel at the United Nations. Critics said planned building near Jerusalem would cut links between the northern and southern West Bank, seriously damaging prospects for a viable Palestinian state.

“These actions are counterproductive and make it harder to resume direct negotiations or achieve a two-state solution,” said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor. “We reiterate our long-standing opposition to settlement activity and East Jerusalem construction and announcements.

“Direct negotiations remain our goal, and we encourage all parties to take steps to make that goal easier to achieve,” Vietor said.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said that by approving more building in settlements, Israel was “defying the whole international community and insisting on destroying the two-state solution.”

The Israeli official did not specify where the 3,000 homes would be built, but said the areas for additional “planning and zoning” of housing would include the large Israeli settlement concentrations in the West Bank, among them the town of Maaleh Adumim east of Jerusalem and an area connecting it to the city, known as E-1.

The United States has strenuously opposed Israeli construction in that area, saying that linking Maaleh Adumim to Jerusalem would drive a wedge between the northern and southern West Bank, diminishing the possibility of a territorially contiguous and viable Palestinian state.

Israel had suspended moves to build in that zone, though it has constructed its West Bank police headquarters there, as well as roads, lighting and infrastructure for possible construction of residential neighborhoods.

According to Israeli media reports, the Obama administration had warned Netanyahu before the U.N. vote against a harsh response, and against advancing construction in the E-1 zone.

Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer and expert on Jerusalem who has briefed U.S. officials, said a decision to promote construction in E-1 was “a fatal blow to the two-state solution because it will dismember a potential Palestinian state into cantons, making it unviable, and it will seal off East Jerusalem from its environs in the West Bank.”

He said that planning for the new construction there could take six to nine months.

The Palestinians seek a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with a capital in East Jerusalem, and have refused to resume stalled negotiations with Israel as long as it continues to expand settlements.

“How can you negotiate when they are stealing the land?” Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said of Israel’s latest building plans.

Netanyahu has urged a resumption of direct talks without preconditions, arguing that they would cover all core issues in dispute, including the settlements. After the U.N. vote, he accused the Palestinians of violating signed agreements to negotiate a peace deal, and he warned that Israel would respond.

The Palestinian leadership is expected to meet next week to consider its next moves after the U.N. decision, in which the General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to upgrade the Palestinians’ status from observer to a non-member observer state. The United States was one of eight nations that voted with Israel against the resolution, arguing that it prejudges the outcome of negotiations.

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