With Trump's swearing-in, Israel pushes ahead on settlements

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel announced plans Tuesday to build 2,500 more settler homes on the West Bank, moving to step up construction just days after the swearing-in of Donald Trump brought to power a U.S. administration seen as friendly to the settlement movement.

 "We are building -- and we will continue to build," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote in a Facebook post.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer did not answer directly when asked about Trump's reaction.

"Israel continues to be a huge ally of the United States," Spicer said. "He wants to grow closer with Israel to make sure that it gets the full respect that it deserves in the Middle East."

While Trump has signaled that he will be far more tolerant of Israeli settlement construction than his predecessors, he also has expressed a desire to broker a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, and siding closely with Israel on such a contentious matter could hurt U.S. credibility.

Netanyahu repeatedly clashed with President Barack Obama over settlement construction.

Obama, like the rest of the international community, considered the building of settlements on occupied lands claimed by the Palestinians to be an obstacle to peace. Those tensions boiled over last month when the Obama White House allowed the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution condemning the settlements as illegal.

Trump harshly criticized Obama for going against Israel and promised a new approach after taking office, raising hopes inside Israel's nationalist government for a new era in relations.

Trump has already invited Netanyahu to visit the White House next month, and both men, after speaking on the phone Sunday, promised close coordination on a range of sensitive matters.

Netanyahu's office would not say whether he had consulted with the White House before Tuesday's announcement, but just a day earlier, the prime minister told a meeting of his Likud Party that there should be no surprises for the new president.

The construction plans were announced by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said in a statement that he and Netanyahu agreed on the approval "in response to housing needs."

He said most of the housing units will be built in settlement "blocs," densely populated areas where most settlers already live and which Israel wants to keep under its control under any future peace deal with the Palestinians. Some 100 homes were slated for two smaller settlements.

The approvals were for early stages of home development, meaning construction is not expected to begin anytime soon.

"This decision destroys the two-state solution," said Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official in the West Bank. "We call on the international community to hold Israel accountable immediately." He said the Israeli government had been encouraged by what it heard from Trump.

The Palestinians want the West Bank and east Jerusalem -- areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war -- for their hoped-for state, a position that has wide international backing.

Trump has signaled a softer approach to the settlements. Earlier this week, he did not react to an Israeli announcement to build over 560 new homes in east Jerusalem.

Both his designated ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, now a top aide and Mideast envoy, have deep ties to the settler movement. Friedman and Kushner's family foundation have both been generous contributors to Beit El, one of the settlements mentioned in Tuesday's announcement. A delegation of settler representatives was invited to Trump's inauguration last week.

Oded Revivi, the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha settlers' council, said he hopes Tuesday's announcement "is just the beginning of a wave of new building." Revivi led the delegation to the inauguration, the first time the movement has received such an invitation.

Trump's ties to the settler movement are just one reason Israel's nationalist right is encouraged by the new administration.

His campaign platform made no mention of a Palestinian state, a cornerstone of two decades of international diplomacy in the region. Trump also has promised to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move long favored by Israel but vehemently opposed by the Palestinians.

Since Trump took over, Netanyahu has been under heavy pressure from the pro-settler Jewish Home Party to move ahead on an explosive bill that would annex Maaleh Adumim, a major settlement near Jerusalem. A vote on the legislation, which threatens to unleash fresh violence and draw international condemnation, was put on hold this week, apparently so Netanyahu could coordinate his policy with the new U.S. administration.

Despite the positive signs for Netanyahu, Trump remains something of a wild card. Since taking office, for instance, he has appeared to backpedal from his promise to move the embassy.

The Palestinians have warned that moving the embassy would amount to American recognition of Israeli control over east Jerusalem, home to sensitive Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites.

They say this could trigger religious violence, and they have threatened to cancel their diplomatic recognition of Israel, the basis for past interim peace accords.

Neighboring Jordan, which holds custodial rights over Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, has said that moving the embassy would cross a "red line." Jordan is a key American and Israeli ally in the battle against Islamic militants.

On Tuesday, the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip warned the U.S. not to move the embassy, saying it could "open a new chapter of conflict" and "add fuel to the fire."

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   Associated Press writers Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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