JERUSALEM -- The government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued bids yesterday to build 700 homes in the West Bank, its largest settlement construction project since taking office in May.
The Construction and Housing Ministry published ads in Israeli media requesting proposals for the new construction in the Maaleh Adumim and Betar Illit settlements, both outside Jerusalem.
Ministry spokesman Kobi Bleich confirmed the project is the largest so far by the new government, which was elected on a platform calling for withdrawal from most Jewish settlements. Previously, the government issued bids to build 98 homes in other projects.
Despite his calls for a withdrawal, Olmert has repeatedly said Israel would keep major settlement blocs -- including Maaleh Adumim and Betar Illit -- under any final peace deal with the Palestinians.
In all, more than 60,000 people live in the two settlements.
Since the recently ended war in Lebanon, Olmert has frozen his withdrawal plan -- leaving the future of Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank up in the air.
The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, as part of a future state.
Saeb Erekat, a confidant of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the planned settlement expansion.
``This undermines all efforts being exerted to revive a peace process," Erekat said. ``And at the end of the day, the choice will be between settlements or peace. You cannot have both."
The United States and other foreign governments do not recognize the settlements and consider settlement construction an obstacle to Mideast peace.
However, President Bush has signaled that he would agree to Israel holding on to some settlements under a peace agreement.