Israeli soldiers guard an entrance to the Jewish settlement of Itamar in… (Bernat Armangue / Associated…)
JERUSALEM -- As U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry is poised to return to the region, Israel is advancing a plan for a large-scale expansion of a West Bank settlement, according to Israeli media reports.
Plans for more than 600 housing units in the settlement of Itamar were recently submitted to authorities, the reports say. If completed, the new construction would significantly expand the settlement, which currently has about 1,200 residents.
A previous government pledged more housing for Itamar after five family members were killed in an attack in their home. Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's previous defense minister, gave initial approval to moving ahead with the project last year.
While settlers welcomed the news, liberal lawmaker Zehava Galon described the move to local media as "giving the U.S. the finger" while the government was engaged in efforts to resume the peace process.
Earlier this week, Netanyahu told lawmakers that settlement construction would continue but that there was a need "to be smart, not only right" about it.
Recently released figures from Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics show new construction in the West Bank this year has increased almost threefold compared with the same months in 2012.
In recent days, the issues of peace talks and a two-state solution have caused some tension in Netanyahu's coalition, exposing deep differences between the partners and raising questions about his ability to engage in peace talks with the Palestinians.
But Netanyahu continues to say he seeks renewed negotiations. Last week he urged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to "give peace a chance" and drop preconditions for entering talks.
Kerry was expected in Israel this week for his fifth visit since taking office in February, but the trip was postponed. It is believed he will now arrive next week.
Former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a Netanyahu ally, said this week in a radio interview that "we are interested in Kerry succeeding."
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