Netanyahu putting settlement plans on hold during Kerry's Mideast visit
Settlement building reached an all-time high in 2013, with thousands of new homes being built on occupied territories. Under international law, the majority of Israel's settlements are illegal. (AFP/File)
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Israel won't announce new settlement construction bids while the U.S. secretary of state is in the region, officials said as John Kerry was to land Thursday.
"Nobody has an intention of sticking a finger in Kerry's eye," a senior official told Israel's Haaretz newspaper.
The Obama administration considers settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- territories Israel seized from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War -- illegitimate and an obstacle to peace.
During the war, Israel took effective control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt -- known then as the United Arab Republic -- the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria.
Most of the world considers Israeli housing settlements in any of those captured territories illegal under international law.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says the expanded settlement plans undermine any chance of peace, and Palestinian leaders say they plan to fight them in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, if the peace talks fail.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the settlement plans in a New Year's Eve address, calling them a "cancer" and vowing to use the Authority's "right as a U.N. observer state by taking political, diplomatic and legal action to stop it."
He also reiterated his threat to seek U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state if Israel expands settlement construction.
Kerry was to meet with Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials from Thursday through at least Sunday, and probably longer, to advance a U.S.-led effort to draft a preliminary framework for peace.
Kerry first proposed the framework last month as the end goal of nine months of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that started in July.
Kerry originally said the nine-month goal, in April, was to forge a final agreement in the long-running conflict.
The Obama administration says it hopes to present the preliminary framework to both sides by the end of the month.
This is Kerry's 10th Middle East visit as secretary of state to advance the difficult Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Netanyahu said last week he planned to publish the new housing-construction proposals, or tenders, shortly after Monday night's Israeli release of 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners -- the third of four promised releases.
Israel agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners in four phases as part of a U.S.-brokered deal to resume the peace talks.
Netanyahu is torn between a desire to succeed in the peace talks and not being seen as a "sucker" for releasing the prisoners and potentially getting nothing in return if the peace talks fail, Israel's Army Radio reported, citing officials who recently met with Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has made a point of tying settlement announcements to the prisoners' release.