Israel legalized three unsanctioned West Bank settler outposts and was trying to save another on Tuesday, infuriating the Palestinians as the chief American Mideast envoy was in the region laboring to revive peace efforts.
The decision fueled suspicions that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hardline coalition would try to legalize as many rogue settlement sites as possible to cement Israel's hold on occupied land the Palestinians claim for a state.
Netanyahu faces stiff pressure from pro-settler hardliners within his own coalition to fend off legal challenges to the unauthorized construction. Some hardliners have even warned that the coalition, which until now has been remarkably stable, could unravel over the issue.
Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem as the core of their hoped-for state, and see all Israeli settlement as illegal encroachment on those lands. They have refused to restart peace talks until construction halts.
"We call upon the Israeli government to immediately stop all unilateral acts," said senior Palestinian official Nabil Abu Rdeneh. "Netanyahu is pushing things into deadlock once again."
A string of Israeli governments have pledged not to build any new settlements. But critics say the settler movement, with quiet support from the government, has used the outposts to grab more West Bank land. Dozens of clusters of houses or mobile homes dot the West Bank, in addition to more than 120 authorized settlements.
Netanyahu says the issue of settlements should be resolved through peace talks, which broke down more than three years ago over the settlement issue.
Israel began settling the West Bank and east Jerusalem immediately after capturing them in the 1967 Mideast war, and 500,000 Jews now live there. The international community widely condemns the construction.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was concerned about the decision. "We have raised this with the Israeli government, and we are seeking clarification," Nuland told reporters. "We don't think this is helpful to the process, and we don't accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity," she said.
The Israeli announcement came as U.S. envoy David Hale was in the region, on a new mission to restart negotiations.
The Israeli government's formulation of its decision was that it was "formalizing the status" of Sansana, Bruchin and Rehalim, three longstanding enclaves that are home to hundreds of Jewish settlers.
A government official denied they were outposts, insisting their establishment was authorized by previous Israeli Cabinets. He said Monday night's decision merely addressed technical and procedural issues and did not change the situation on the ground.
Despite the claim, two of the enclaves, Bruchin and Rehalim, were identified as unauthorized outposts in a 2005 government report. The Netanyahu government has reopened that report, saying the objectivity of its author, then-state prosecutor Talia Sasson, is now in question because she later joined an anti-settlement political party.
The official also acknowledged the third enclave, Sansana, was supposed to have been built within Israel proper.
In a related development, Netanyahu said Tuesday that he would ask Israel's Supreme Court to defer next week's deadline for demolishing five apartment buildings erected illegally in another unauthorized outpost.
The court has ruled that the buildings, which house 30 families in the Ulpana outpost outside Jerusalem, must be razed by May 1 because they were built on privately owned Palestinian land.
Netanyahu said his government is looking for "legal" ways to prevent the buildings from being demolished.
It is not clear if the court would agree to a delay. Decades ago, the court outlawed settlement construction on privately owned Palestinian land.
Netanyahu disclosed his plans in a set of rare interviews given to Israeli radio stations on the eve of Israel's Memorial Day, which begins Tuesday night.
Some members of Israel's ruling coalition have warned the government would fall if the buildings come down.