JERUSALEM – Israel began building more than twice as many West Bank settlement homes in 2013 than it did the previous year, Israel’s central bureau of statistics said Monday, just hours before its prime minster was to face President Barack Obama in Washington for what was expected to be a tense meeting.
In Gaza, meanwhile, Israel launched an airstrike that killed a Palestinian militant, officials and his family said.
The two leaders have been at odds over Israel’s settlement policies on war-won land, and the announcement looked to complicate matters weeks before an initial April target date for reaching the outline of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
In its annual roundup of the Israeli housing market, the bureau said work began on 2,534 new housing units in the settlements in 2013, compared to 1,133 in 2012. Nationally, Israel had a 3.4 percent increase in housing starts over the same period.
The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — territories captured by Israel in 1967 — for an independent state. The Palestinians consider settlements build beyond the pre-1967 lines to be illegal and an obstacle to peace. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to recognize these lines as a starting point, saying final borders should be agreed in negotiations.
Palestinian official Nabil Shaath condemned the construction, saying the “settlement activities have made negotiations worthless.” He said the surge had angered Palestinians and called for a “complete cessation of settlement construction.”
More than 550,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. The Palestinians, along with the international community, consider settlements illegal or illegitimate. European and American leaders have warned Israel recently that settlements are causing increased isolation for Israel.
In a published interview, Obama said he would personally appeal for Netanyahu to move forward on peace talks with the Palestinians.
“I believe that (Netanyahu) is strong enough that if he decided this was the right thing to do for Israel, that he could do it,” Obama said in an interview with Bloomberg View. “If he does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach. And as I said before, it’s hard to come up with one that’s plausible.”
After two decades of intermittent negotiations, including nearly five years of deadlock following Netanyahu’s return to power in 2009, the United States relaunched peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians last July. The sides agreed to a nine-month target for forging a final peace deal.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has traveled to the region more than 10 times for meetings with Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He has also talked to them on the phone repeatedly. But with no signs of breakthrough, Kerry has been forced to scale back his objectives.
The initial goal of a final deal by April was later replaced by more modest U.S. aspirations of brokering the contours of an agreement. In recent weeks, there were expectations that Kerry would present his own ideas for such a framework, with Abbas and Netanyahu agreeing to continue talks for up to a year on that basis.
But the gaps between Abbas and Netanyahu remain wide, and it’s not certain Kerry will present a framework in such conditions.
Abbas is scheduled to visit the White House on March 17.
The Palestinians have demanded that Israel agree to base the final borders with a future Palestine on the pre-1967 lines, with small land swaps that would allow Israel to keep some of its settlements.
Netanyahu wants to retain an Israeli presence in a strategic area of the West Bank along the border with Jordan and keep large blocs of settlements closest to Israel. He has given no indication as to how much territory he is willing to cede and he has rejected any division of east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ hoped-for capital.
Netanyahu has also demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.
Netanyahu is facing intense international pressure to begin making concessions. The international community has shown growing impatience with Israeli settlements on lands claimed by the Palestinians. Domestically, his government has come under fire for continuing to build in the West Bank when there is a dire shortage of housing in Israel proper.
Shortly before Netanyahu was set to meet with Obama, the Israeli military said it carried out an airstrike in Gaza against Palestinian militants preparing to launch rockets at Israel.
The military said the strike was conducted in order “to eliminate an imminent attack targeting civilian communities of southern Israel.”
Gaza Health official Ashraf Al Kedra said a 21-year-old man was killed and two others wounded in the strike Monday night. The family of the man killed said he belonged to the Islamic Jihad group, which often fires rockets at Israel.