* Marathon sessions planned on construction
* EU joins chorus of criticism
* Netanyahu deputy brushes off censure
(Adds British comment)
JERUSALEM, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Israeli officials said they
would press on with plans this week to build 6,000 homes for
settlers on land claimed by Palestinians, defying criticism from
Western powers who fear the move will damage already faint hopes
for a peace accord.
Stung by de facto recognition of Palestinian sovereignty in
a U.N. General Assembly vote last month, Israel announced it
would expand settlements in the occupied West Bank and East
An Israeli Interior Ministry planning committee on Monday
gave preliminary approval for 1,500 new homes in the Ramat
The panel will now start discussing plans for another 4,500
homes in two other settlements, Givat Hamatos and Gilo, in
back-to-back sessions that could run into next week, ministry
spokesman Efrat Orbach said on Tuesday.
Israel counts the three settlements as part of its Jerusalem
municipality, though they are on West Bank land seized in the
1967 Middle East war.
Palestinians see the settlements as obstacles to achieving a
viable state with a capital in East Jerusalem.
"Settlement activity is unilateral and is completely adverse
to the continued viability of a two-state solution and the
possibility for our people to continue to exist," Palestinian
Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told Reuters on Monday.
Most countries deem the settlements illegal and Western
powers have been especially troubled by Israel's declared intent
to build in E-1, a wedge of land between East Jerusalem and the
West Bank where it had previously held off under U.S. pressure.
The United States and European Union condemned the plans.
"We are deeply disappointed that Israel insists on
continuing this pattern of provocative action. These repeated
announcements and plans of new construction run counter to the
cause of peace," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria
Nuland told reporters.
"Israel's leaders continually say that they support a path
towards a two-state solution yet these actions only put that
goal further at risk.
"So we again call on Israel, and the Palestinians, to cease
any kinds of counterproductive, unilateral actions and take
concrete steps to return to direct negotiations," Nuland said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague called the Israeli
decision "a serious provocation and an obstacle to peace".
"If implemented, it would make a negotiated two-state
solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, very difficult to
achieve," he said.
"We urge Israel to reverse this decision and take no further
steps aimed at expanding or entrenching settlement activity."
NETANYAHU DEPUTY DEFENDS MOVE
Israel says the future Palestine's border should be set in
direct negotiations, from which Abbas withdrew two years ago in
protest against the settlements.
Israeli officials have accused him of avoiding new talks
because of unwillingness to compromise and because his authority
does not extend to the other Palestinian territory, Gaza, which
is under rival Hamas Islamists hostile to the Jewish state.
Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon told Israel's Army
Radio the expansion of the Jerusalem-area settlements was a
resumption of plans put on hold while Western powers tried to
persuade Abbas to abandon the Palestinians' U.N. status upgrade.
"We said, 'We won't build, so as not to give Abu Mazen
(Abbas) an excuse to go to the U.N. and an excuse not to come to
the table,'" Yaalon said.
"After he did what he did ... we removed these restrictions
from ourselves," Yaalon added.
He dismissed the international criticism. "The world
automatically condemns any construction over the Green Line, and
then moves on," he said, referring to the West Bank boundary.
Critics in Israel have suggested Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu is pandering to the right-wing electorate as
he prepares to run for re-election in a Jan. 22 ballot.
(Additional reporting by Noah Browning in Ramallah and Arshad
Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Andrew