Israel moved forward on Wednesday with plans to build some 3 000 homes for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, defying US President Joe Biden administration’s strongest criticism to date of such projects.

A senior Palestinian official said the decision showed that Israel’s new government, led by far-right politician Naftali Bennett, was “no less extreme” than the administration of the veteran leader he replaced, Benjamin Netanyahu.

An Israeli defence official said a planning forum of Israel’s liaison office with the Palestinians gave preliminary approval for plans to build 1 344 housing units and its final go-ahead for projects to construct 1 800 homes.

It will be up to Defence Minister Benny Gantz, a centrist in Israel’s politically diverse government, to give the nod for construction permits to be issued, with further friction with Washington looming.

“This government is trying to balance between its good relations with the Biden administration and the various political constraints,” a senior Israeli official told Reuters.

The United States on Tuesday said it was “deeply concerned” about Israel’s plans to advance thousands of settlement units. It called such steps damaging to prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said it strongly opposes settlement expansion.

Washington desisted from such criticism when President Joe Biden’s Republican predecessor Donald Trump was in office.
A senior US State Department official said Secretary of State Antony Blinken had discussed the issue with Gantz on Tuesday. Their phone call was first reported by the Axios news website, which cited Israeli officials as saying the chief US diplomat voiced US opposition to the settlement plan.