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Report: Israel approves 198 new settlement homes

Jan. 16, 2013 2:35 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 17, 2013 5:03 P.M.)
TEL AVIV, Israel (Ma'an) -- Israel's housing ministry released government tenders for the construction of 198 new settlement units in the occupied West Bank, Israeli media reported Wednesday.

Noting the timing before national elections, Israel's Ynet news site reported that the announcement invited developers to bid on two projects in Efrat and Kiryat Arba.

Both settlements are in the Hebron area of the occupied West Bank and considered illegal under international law.

The announcement came two weeks ahead of an Israeli election the incumbent prime minister's joint party list is expected to win. Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly promised to hold on to settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and expanded them during his term.

A centrist challenger, former Foreign Minister and peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, has made Israel's international isolation under Netanyahu the focus of her campaign.

Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now said meanwhile that approval for construction in 2012 far exceeded by a "record level" the counts for the previous two years.

Israeli authorities issued 3,148 such tenders in 2012 - the highest single-year figure in a decade - compared with 1,321 in 2011 and 663 in 2011, Peace Now said.

Netanyahu's settlement policies, Peace Now said, "disclose a clear intention to use settlements to systematically undermine and render impossible a realistic, viable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict".

Almost 40 percent of the new building sites were in what Peace Now called "isolated settlements", and not the more built-up blocs which the government says Israel will keep in any deal with the Palestinians.

Also Wednesday, Netanyahu's office declined comment on an un-sourced column by US writer Jeffrey Goldberg, which described Obama as frustrated at West Bank settlement building.

"Obama said privately and repeatedly, 'Israel doesn't know what its own best interests are'," Goldberg wrote in the column published Tuesday by Bloomberg.

The president "seems to view the prime minister as a political coward, an essentially unchallenged leader who nevertheless is unwilling to lead or spend political capital to advance the cause of compromise", added Goldberg.

Some Israeli commentators saw the column as payback for Netanyahu's perceived back-room lobbying on behalf of Republican Mitt Romney in his failed run against Obama in November's US election. Netanyahu has denied any such meddling.

Reuters contributed to this report.
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