Israel to lift freeze on marketing of 454 settler homes in East Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has approved the marketing of land for the construction of 454 homes in two settlements in East Jerusalem, a government official said on Tuesday. The building of 436 of the housing units, in the settlement of Ramat Shlomo on land Israel occupied in a 1967 war, was approved in 2012 but the project was later frozen in an apparent attempt to avoid friction with Washington. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden publicly scolded Israel when construction plans for Ramat Shlomo, which is in territory Palestinians seek for a future state, were first announced in 2010 while he was visiting Jerusalem. The Israeli government official, who asked not to be identified, said Netanyahu gave the go-ahead on Monday to market 436 homes in Ramat Shlomo and another 18 in Ramot. In a statement, the Palestinian Authority condemned the Israeli plan and settlement-building as a whole as a "flagrant violation of international law" aimed at preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state. The United States also harshly criticized the decision. "We view this kind of activity as illegitimate and counterproductive to the cause of peace," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington. "We remain deeply concerned about Israel’s current policy on settlements, including construction, planning and retroactive legalizations, and we remain unequivocally opposed to these kinds of unilateral steps that, frankly, seek to prejudge the outcome of any negotiations," he added. Ramat Shlomo and Ramot are in a part of the West Bank that Israel annexed to Jerusalem in 1967 in a move that has not won international recognition. Netanyahu, who has been pressed by ultranationalist coalition partners to expand construction in settlements, has said that Jews have a right to live in any part of Jerusalem. News of the decision came a week after Netanyahu held talks in the White House with President Barack Obama in which the right-wing Israeli leader publicly reaffirmed his commitment to a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has attached conditions to the creation of a Palestinian state, including Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Palestinians have rejected that demand. Some 500,000 Israelis have settled in the West Bank and East Jerusalem among 2.4 million Palestinians. The World Court says settlements Israel has built there are illegal, a view Israel disputes. (Reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Ali Sawafta; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and James Dalgleish)