Kushner visits after Israel okays homes for Palestinians, settlers

Jerusalem (AFP) - Israel has given rare approval to Palestinian homes in the part of the occupied West Bank it fully controls while also backing a large settlement expansion, ahead of White House advisor Jared Kushner's key visit Wednesday.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity Wednesday, confirmed the approval by the country's security cabinet the previous day, ahead of the arrival by US President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser.

The approval of 700 homes for Palestinians and 6,000 for Israeli settlers comes as the White House seeks to promote Kushner's long-awaited peace plan.

It was not immediately clear if all of the homes would be new or if some already exist and are receiving retroactive approval.

While the number of homes approved for Palestinians is relatively small and far outweighed by the number of settlement homes, the move could allow Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to argue he is making efforts to make Kushner's plan succeed.

Kushner visited Jordan on Wednesday before travelling to Jerusalem, where he met Netanyahu, according to a statement from the US embassy.

The meeting at the prime minister's office was also attended by a trio of US officials -- Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, Iran envoy Brian Hook and Washington's ambassador to Israel David Friedman.

- US pushes 'autonomy' -

Kushner has said his plan will not mention a two-state solution because "it means one thing to the Israelis, it means one thing to the Palestinians."

Palestinians and many governments around the world warn that continued settlement construction by Israel in the West Bank is eating away at hopes for a two-state solution to the conflict.

But US diplomat Friedman, who has been a backer of Israeli settlements, reiterated his stance in an interview with CNN late Tuesday.

Friedman said the United States was in favour of Palestinian "autonomy", but signalled Washington was not ready to support full statehood -- similar to Netanyahu's position.

"The issue we have is agreeing in advance to a state because the word state conjures up with it so many potential issues that we think it does a disservice for us to use that phrase," he said.

"We believe in Palestinian autonomy. We believe in Palestinian civilian self-governance. We believe that that autonomy should be extended up until the point where it interferes with Israeli security, and it's a very complicated needle to thread."

He argued that the Palestinian Authority government may currently be too weak to prevent militant groups from overrunning it, resulting in a "failed state" that threatens Israel and neighbouring Jordan.

- Palestinian boycott -

The White House unveiled economic aspects of its peace plan at a conference in Bahrain in June, but it was boycotted by the Palestinians.

The Palestinians froze contacts with Trump's White House after his 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and have already dismissed Kushner's plan as blatantly biased in favour of Israel.

In addition to the Jerusalem decision, Trump's administration has taken a series of moves against the Palestinians, including cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and shutting their de facto embassy in Washington.

Tuesday's approvals are for housing in the part of the West Bank known as Area C, which is under Israeli security and civilian control and where most of its settlements are located.

Area C accounts for more than 60 percent of the West Bank, the Palestinian territory that would form part of a future Palestinian state.

Israel rarely grants approvals for Palestinian construction in that area and frequently carries out demolitions of Palestinian buildings it considers illegally built.

Walid Assaf, the Palestinian Authority official who monitors Israeli settlements, told AFP the approvals were "vague and incomprehensible."

He said the approval of 700 Palestinian homes was partly a cover up "for the construction of 6,000 settlement units to complete the outer envelope of Jerusalem, isolating it from the Palestinian territories."

The settlements are considered illegal under international law and are built on land that the Palestinians see as part of their future state.

Israel says that Palestinian intransigence, violence and incitement are the main impediments to peace.

Israel occupied the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the Six-Day War of 1967.

It later annexed east Jerusalem in a move never recognised by the international community, and sees the entire city as its undivided capital.

The Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

Some 600,000 Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, along with around 2.9 million Palestinians.