JERUSALEM: Israel today gave the go-ahead to build hundreds of new housing units in settlements in the occupied West Bank, defying warnings that the move could endanger any resumption of Middle East peace talks.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak authorised the construction of 455 units, most of them in the large settlement blocs that Israel has said it wants to keep in any final peace agreement.

The move — which comes just days ahead of a planned visit to the region by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell — will almost certainly bring criticism that it is undermining US-led efforts to budge the stalled peace process.

When Israel announced last week its intention

to approve a burst of settlement building before considering a US-demanded halt, the Palestinians, Washington and Europe all warned against the move.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas had blasted the plans as unacceptable, and warned that if Israel goes ahead there will be no point in holding a three-way meeting between him, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly later this month.

“We will not go back to the negotiating table before a halt to the settlement building,” Abbas’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP today in Saudi Arabia, just hours before the announcement of the new units.

The Israeli anti-settlement Peace Now group said in a statement that “these building approvals transform any peace process into a political farce.” “The settlers are receiving... a significant gift from the government of Israel in the form of settlements extending tens of kilometres deep into the West Bank,” it said.

Washington has for months pushed Israel to freeze all settlement activity and for Arab

states to take steps towards normalising relations with the Jewish state in order to revive Middle East peace talks.

Amid media speculation that some Arab states may answer Obama’s call and agree to normalisation steps, such as the issuing of visas or overflight authorisation, Abbas on Monday called “for a unified Arab stance in face of Israel.” The spurt of settlement building is part of Netanyahu’s efforts to appease the hawks in his rightwing Likud party who virulently oppose any freeze, Israel analysts say.

Any moratorium on construction would exclude some 2,500 homes

already being built in the West Bank, as well as any building in annexed east Jerusalem.

Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem — home to some half a million Israelis — are considered illegal by the international community and one of the thorniest issues in the decades-old Middle East conflict.

Israel and the Palestinians revived their peace talks in November 2007 after nearly a seven-year

lull, but the negotiations made little progress before they were suspended

in late December over Israel’s war in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.