December 28, 2016 / 8:27 AM / 8 months ago

Israel approves settler building in East Jerusalem ahead of Kerry speech

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office December 25, 2016.Dan Balilty/Pool/Files

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel approved construction of a multi-storey building for settlers in annexed East Jerusalem on Wednesday, an NGO said, after postponing authorisation of hundreds of other homes ahead of a speech on the Middle East by the U.S. secretary of state.

The Obama administration provoked the Israeli government's fury on Friday by failing to block the passage of an anti-settlement resolution in the U.N. Security Council.

Secretary of State John Kerry was to give further voice to international opposition to settlements in an address at 11 a.m. ET (1600 GMT) that a State Department official said would lay out his vision for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has joined Israeli leaders in attacking the outgoing Obama administration's move at the U.N.

"We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but not anymore," Trump, a Republican, wrote in a new Twitter posting.

"Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!, Trump said, citing the day he takes office.

Hours before Kerry's speech, a Jerusalem municipal committee pulled back from approving 492 new homes for Israelis in East Jerusalem, an area that Israel captured along with the West Bank in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The chairman of the committee and one of its members said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had asked for the vote to be delayed, concerned approval for those projects would add ammunition to Kerry's expected anti-settlement arguments.

A spokesman for the Israeli leader declined to make immediate comment. The panel meets regularly and the building projects that were removed from the agenda on Wednesday could come up for a vote in the future.

Ir Amim, a group which opposes Israeli settlement in occupied territory where Palestinians seek to establish a state, said the committee nonetheless permitted construction of a four-storey building for settlers in Silwan, a Palestinian neighbourhood where they have been expanding their enclave.

"Today, while attention has been focused on the removal of ... building permits ... the committee proceeded to approve a controversial project in one of the most flammable neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem," Ir Amim said in a statement.

In his speech, Kerry will discuss Washington's withholding of its Security Council veto in the 14-0 vote that called for a halt to Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories.

Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, called on Israel "to take the high ground and declare a cessation of settlement activities, including East Jerusalem, so we can give the peace process the chance it deserves by the resumption of meaningful negotiations".

"SHAMEFUL"

Washington's move at the United Nations broke its longstanding policy of diplomatic shielding of Israel. Condemned by Israel as "shameful", it was widely seen as a parting shot by President Barack Obama against Netanyahu and his pro-settlement policies.

The two leaders have had a rocky relationship, divided over the decades-old Israeli policy of building Jewish settlements in occupied territory as well as on how to prevent Iran arming itself with nuclear weapons.

Washington considers the settlement activity illegitimate and most countries view it as an obstacle to peace. Israel cites a biblical, historical and political connection to the land - which the Palestinians also claim - as well as security interests.

Some 570,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem amid mounting international concern that a two-state solution to the dispute is in jeopardy, with peace talks stalled since 2014.

Since learning last week of Kerry's planned speech, Israeli officials have been concerned he might use the address to lay out parameters for a Middle East peace deal.

Netanyahu's aides are confident Trump's incoming administration will likely ignore any Obama principles. But they fear Kerry's remarks will put Israel on the defensive and prompt other countries to apply pressure.

Trump has pledged to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its capital - a status that is not recognised internationally.

"Who's Obama? He's history," Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev said on Army Radio on Wednesday.

Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; editing by Andrew Roche

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