Israel's prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has abruptly halted a plan to explore the potential construction of thousands of new homes in West Bank settlements, saying it had created an unnecessary confrontation with the international community that threatened to weaken his campaign against Iran's nuclear programme.
His decision came just hours after Israel's housing ministry announced the scheme, prompting a Palestinian threat to walk out of US-brokered peace talks. It also drew angry criticism from officials in Washington, who said they had been blindsided by the move.
Netanyahu said he had asked his housing minister, Uri Ariel, to reconsider the plan and said Ariel, a member of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, had drawn up the plan "without any advance coordination".
Netanyahu said: "This step does not contribute to settlement. On the contrary, there is damage here for settlement. This is a meaningless step – legally and in practice – and an action that creates an unnecessary confrontation with the international community at a time when we are making an effort to persuade elements in the international community to reach a better deal with Iran."
Ariel had accepted the request, Netanyahu said.
The issue of settlement construction has been at the heart of a standstill in peace efforts in recent years. The Palestinians claim the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in 1967, for an independent state. They say Israeli settlement construction on occupied lands is a sign of bad faith. More than 500,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now, which closely monitors construction activity, said Ariel's plans included nearly 20,000 apartments in the West Bank and 4,000 in east Jerusalem.
Peace Now says Netanyahu's government has given final approval for nearly 3,500 new homes in Jewish settlements since taking office last March and has promoted plans for nearly 9,000 additional homes.
The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said he had contacted the US, Russia, the European Union, the United Nations and the Arab League to voice objections.
"I informed them that if Israel implements this decision, then this means the end of the negotiations and the end of the peace process," Erekat said.
In Washington, state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: "Our position on settlements is quite clear – we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity. We've called on both sides to take steps to create a positive atmosphere for the negotiation."
The housing ministry said it had published bids seeking architectural firms to look into possible construction of 600,000 homes nationwide to ease a chronic housing crunch.