JERUSALEM — Israel said Friday that it will construct hundreds of new housing units in West Bank settlements before any slowdown in building, an announcement that drew harsh criticism from the U.S., which demands a complete settlement freeze as a prelude to renewing Mideast peace talks.
Israeli officials painted the move as a concession to the U.S. demand because it might bring a temporary halt to other construction. But since it would also mean building the new units and finishing about 2,500 others now under construction, it looked more like defiance than acquiescence.
Israel's proposal also does not include any freeze in building in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians hope to make their future capital.
The Obama administration did not mince words.
"We regret the reports of Israel's plans to approve additional settlement construction," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement Friday. "As the president has said before, the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also slammed the Israeli plan.
"For us, this idea is completely unacceptable," he told reporters. "We are asking the Israelis to freeze the settlements and to go towards the next phase of peace talks."
Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat went further, saying, "I think the only thing that will be suspended by this announcement is the peace process."
At the very least, Friday's announcement looked likely to either force the U.S. into a fresh showdown with Israel or into admitting that it no longer hopes to achieve a full halt to Israeli settlement building on lands Palestinians claim for a future state.
Peace talks have been suspended since shortly before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's election this spring, but there are expectations of a first meeting between Netanyahu and Abbas this month at the U.N. in New York.