RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Israel has given final approval to building 272 new apartments in two isolated West Bank settlements, officials confirmed Monday, just as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up his latest mediating mission to the region.
Kerry returned to Washington on Monday, after several days of talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in hopes of forging the outlines of a peace deal. Kerry reported progress, but gaps remain.
Maj. Guy Inbar, an Israeli defense official, said the initial approval for new building in the settlements of Ofra and Karnei Shomron was given several months ago, suggesting Sunday's publication of the plans for validation, a last step, was a formality.
However, the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now said promoting any settlement plans is a show of bad faith, particularly at a time when Kerry is intensifying his efforts. The government has the option of suspending settlement plans, but instead chooses to promote them, Peace Now spokesman Lior Amihai said.
"A government that is seeking a two-state solution would not further entrench the conflict by building in the settlements, and especially in settlements that have no chance to remain under Israeli sovereignty," Peace Now said in a statement.
Under the latest plans, 250 apartments were approved for Ofra, in the heart of the West Bank. Of those, 53 have already been built, without permits, and were given retroactive approval, Peace Now said. Another 22 apartments were approved for the Karnei Shomron settlement, the group said.
Israel has refused to suspend settlement building for the duration of the current round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that began in late July under intense U.S. pressure.
More than 550,000 Israelis already live in dozens of settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, lands the Palestinians want, along with the Gaza Strip, for a future state. Israel captured the three territories in the 1967 Mideast war, and withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but continues to control access to it.
In recent weeks, Kerry has stepped up involvement in the negotiations, shuttling between Abbas and Netanyahu to narrow considerable gaps between them on the outlines of a peace deal.
The Palestinians have serious reservations about some of Kerry's ideas, particularly on the future of Jerusalem, a Palestinian official said Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of Kerry's demand for discretion.
Kerry suggested in meetings with Abbas over the weekend that a framework refer to Palestinian "aspirations" to have a capital in Jerusalem, the official said. The Palestinians want a specific mention of east Jerusalem as their capital, fearing that otherwise they'll end up with a small part of the city. Netanyahu has said he opposes any division of the city.
Kerry has not discussed the substance of the negotiations in public.
However, participants have said he wants Abbas to recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people — a demand Abbas has rebuffed in the past.
In return, Netanyahu would likely have to accept the pre-1967 frontier as the starting line for drawing a border between Israel and a future Palestine. Up to now, Netanyahu has refused to do so.
On Sunday, Kerry unexpectedly flew to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with the Saudi monarch, presumably to win Saudi and Arab backing for an eventual framework agreement.
Next week, Kerry is to meet in Paris with an Arab delegation that monitors the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, according to Nabil Elaraby, the secretary-general of the Arab League.
It's not clear when Kerry will return to present his proposed framework to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Also Monday, Netanyahu appeared to take some flak from his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who said that only a "nitwit" prime minister wouldn't make peace.
Olmert held intensive talks with Abbas in 2007 and 2008, and the two leaders appeared to have made progress before Olmert was pushed out of office as a result of a corruption probe.
Olmert told university students that Israel should seize the opportunity for reaching a peace deal.
"In a peace agreement, believe me even a nitwit of a prime minister will come out looking good. But a nitwit of prime minister won't make peace, and a prime minister who makes peace isn't a nitwit," Olmert said.
Olmert did not mention Netanyahu's name and said he was making general comments that should not be construed as a personal attack.
But in other comments apparently aimed at the prime minister, he said it is essential for leaders "to make decisions" in order to reach peace.
Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah and Deb Riechmann in Shannon, Ireland, contributed.