JERUSALEM, Israel -- Most Americans are more concerned with Iran building nuclear bombs than Israel building news homes in its biblical heartland, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said this week in Jerusalem. But a left-wing Israeli group says newly planned construction in the "West Bank" will cast a pall over President Obama's upcoming visit to Israel.
The Defense Ministry issued its final approval Monday for 90 new apartment homes in the Samarian town of Beit-El -- named for biblical Bethel. It's the first stage of a project to build 300 new homes in Beit El to replace 30 that were removed in a controversial move last year. Once permits are issued, construction can begin.
Last spring, the government evacuated 30 families from five apartment buildings in Beit El's Ulpana neighborhood, based on a decision by the High Court.
The court ruled in favor of a petition submitted by the left-wing Peace Now organization alleging the buildings were constructed on private Palestinian Arab land.
The Jewish developer, who said he purchased the land from an Arab in the village of Dura El Kara years before the neighborhood was built, said he didn't register the transaction in order to protect the seller. It's against Palestinian law for Arabs to sell their property to Jews and many have been killed for doing it.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised the expellees -- who agreed not to fight and to move their families into temporary trailers -- to build 300 new homes, including reconstructing the five apartment buildings that were disassembled.
Peace Now head Yariv Oppenheimer said the decision would cast a shadow over President Obama's upcoming visit in March, calling the decision "mistaken" and "ill-timed."
The P.A. also slammed the announcement, saying it torpedoes renewed negotiations with Israel.
"This Israeli policy aims to put obstacles in the way of any potential political movement in the region and is a disregard to the decision of the international community embodied through the recognition of the state of Palestine in the General Assembly on November 29," the PA's official WAFA news agency quoted PA leader Mahmoud Abbas' spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh.
Gov. Huckabee disagreed.
In a press conference in Jerusalem Monday, Huckabee, who brought some 200 evangelical Christians on tour, said construction in these communities doesn't bother Americans.
"Most Americans are a lot more concerned about Iran building bombs that might blow up those families," Huckabee said.