AFP - Israel will approve construction of hundreds of new homes in West Bank settlements before weighing a freeze sought by Washington in a move announced on Friday that fuelled Palestinian outrage.
The plan was also certain to anger the US administration which has been pushing for a settlement freeze in an effort to restart the Middle East peace process that has been at a standstill since December.
"In the next days the prime minister will approve construction starts and then he might consider a freeze for a limited time under certain conditions," an Israeli government official told AFP.
He confirmed a report in the Jerusalem Post that said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would consider a moratorium on settlement construction "for a few months" after the green light is given to build hundreds of new homes in the West Bank.
The English-language newspaper said work on 2,500 housing units which is already under way would continue.
"The only thing suspended by this announcement will be the peace process," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP.
"This is absolutely unacceptable," he said, speaking by telephone from Paris where he is accompanying Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
The Jerusalem Post said any temporary moratorium on construction would be put in place if "conditions are right," including if Arab states move forward with the normalisation of ties that Israel is seeking.
A similar report in the Haaretz newspaper said Netanyahu informed US officials of his decision to authorise construction a few weeks ago.
"The Americans do not agree and are not happy about it, but we put it on the table a long time ago," the daily quoted an unnamed senior government official as saying.
Israeli media said Netanyahu would take up the issue with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who is due to visit the region next week.
Israel's Channel 2 television said on Thursday night the proposed partial freeze would last nine months and would only affect the West Bank -- home to 300,000 Israelis -- and would not affect east Jerusalem, where a further 200,000 settlers live.
It said that in exchange for the move Arab states including Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Tunisia would allow Israeli commercial offices to open on their territory.
The Palestinians have refused to resume peace talks until Israel freezes all construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, where they want to make the eastern part of the Holy City the capital of their promised state.