Associated Press Writer
JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel increased settlement work four-fold during the latest round of peace talks, pushing forward with construction of nearly 14,000 new homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, a watchdog group said Tuesday.
Peace Now issued its statistics as a nine-month negotiating period between Israel and the Palestinians came to a close. The group cited Israel's construction surge as a key reason for failure.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had envisioned brokering a final peace agreement when he brought the sides together last July. But negotiations made no progress and were characterized by a lack of trust, in large part because of continued Israeli settlement construction in captured territories claimed by the Palestinians.
The Palestinians seek the West Bank and east Jerusalem, along with the Gaza Strip, for an independent state. They say that Israeli settlement construction is a sign of bad faith.
Israel captured all three areas in the 1967 Mideast war, though it withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Today, more than 550,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, making it increasingly difficult to divide the territory.
Kerry sparked an uproar in Israel after warning in a closed forum that Israel could become an "apartheid state" if it doesn't reach a peace deal with the Palestinians.
On Monday, Kerry sought to clarify his use of language, saying he was only expressing his belief that creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel is the only viable way to end the long-running conflict.
Most demographers believe that the Arab population of Israel, along with the West Bank and Gaza, will soon outnumber the Jewish population. Without a two-state solution, Israel's position as a democracy with a Jewish majority could be in jeopardy.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office declined comment on Kerry's remarks. But Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, a member of Netanyahu's Likud Party, criticized them. "Shame on you Kerry! There are words that mustn't be said," he wrote on his Facebook page.
According to Peace Now, Israel promoted plans or issued tenders for construction of 13,851 homes during the talks. These included tenders, or bids for construction, of 4,868 homes, nearly half in the West Bank alone.
The group said the number of tenders, including earlier bids that were reissued, was more than quadruple the average level of construction of the previous two Israeli governments.
And citing official government figures, the number of housing starts in the second half of 2013, some 828 new units, was nearly double the year-earlier level.
Peace Now said the settlement activity was "destructive for the American efforts" and undermined trust. "It also created facts on the ground that proved more than anything else that the Netanyahu government did not mean to go for a two-state solution" and instead tried to strengthen Israeli control over occupied territory.
Netanyahu's office declined comment.
Settlement construction was one of several obstacles that emerged during the negotiations. The Palestinians said that Israel failed to present proposals on key issues, such as the final borders between Israel and a future Palestine. Israel also refused to carry out a release of long-serving Palestinian prisoners that it had promised at the outset of the talks.
Israel complained that the Palestinians refused to recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, and objected to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' attempt to reconcile with the rival Hamas militant group. Israel considers Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis, to be a terrorist organization.
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