JERUSALEM  -An Israeli planning committee on Wednesday granted final approval for the construction of 69 east Jerusalem settler homes, an official said, on the eve of a visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

"The municipal committee has today given its final approval for the construction of 69 homes in Har Homa in east Jerusalem," councillor Meir Margalit told AFP.

The approval was granted by the municipal planning committee just hours before Kerry touched down in Amman on his fifth visit to the region since February as he steps up efforts to draw Israel and the Palestinians back into direct negotiations. "This a blind provocation against Kerry," said Margalit, who is a member of the leftwing Meretz party.

"It proves just how much the government of Bibi (Benjamin) Netanyahu wants peace," he retorted, using the nickname of the Israeli prime minister.

Har Homa is a settlement neighbourhood located in the southern sector of Arab east Jerusalem which was occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War then annexed, in a move not recognised by the international community.

The contentious decision was likely to set tempers flaring a day before Kerry travels to Jerusalem for talks with Netanyahu.

He was expected to meet with Abbas in Amman on Friday. News of the plans emerged just before Kerry took off from Kuwait en route to Amman.  Ahead of his departure, Kerry said he was confident that both Israel and the Palestinians sides were keen to push ahead with peace talks.  "I am quite confident in their serious commitment of purpose," Kerry told reporters in Kuwait City. "I believe they believe the peace process is bigger than any one day or one moment." Plans to build new settler homes in east Jerusalem are Israel's answer to US Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to renew peace talks, a senior Palestinian official charged on Wednesday.

"Israel is sending message after message to Kerry that settlement is their response to any (peace) initiative," Hanan Ashrawi told AFP after a committee pushed through plans for 69 new homes in Har Homa, a particularly contentious area on the southern outskirts of Arab east Jerusalem. "And then they blame the Palestinians for not coming to the negotiating table," she said scornfully.

The Palestinian leadership had repeatedly asked Washington to look at Israel's actions on the ground, but they were turning a blind eye, said Ashrawi.

"Many times we asked the Americans to look at what Israel is doing on the ground.

"The United States is playing blind and deaf about Israel's actions and its declarations," she said, pointing to the growing chorus of statements from senior government officials, several of them from the ruling Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opposing the idea of a two-state solution to the conflict.

Settlement construction was the issue which brought about a collapse of direct peace talks in September 2010 just weeks after they were started when Israel failed to renew a freeze on all new West Bank construction.

The Palestinians have said they will not return to talks without a complete halt to settlement construction and accept the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations, while Israel has hit back saying it would only negotiate if there were no such "pre-conditions".

Har Homa is particularly contentious area on Jerusalem's southern outskirts where construction is likely to have a serious impact on the sector's boundary with the West Bank, experts say.

Building work at Har Homa, which is close to the West Bank city of Bethlehem, began in 1997 during Netanyahu's first term as premier, in a move which led to the breakdown of peace talks.

Meanwhile, an Israeli deputy minister and leader of the radical right in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud has been elected as the head of the party's presidency, reports said on Wednesday.

The election of 42-year-old Danny Danon as Likud president during an initial party vote on Tuesday night enabled him to score political points against the premier, Israeli media said.

The role is largely symbolic, but belies the growing influence of the hardline settler lobby within the rightwing party.

Although Netanyahu will remain as head of the party, members will on Sunday choose who will preside over three key institutions -- the central committee, the Likud bureau, and the secretariat -- in a vote likely to highlight exactly how much of a threat the premier faces from party rebels.

Danon, who serves as deputy defence minister, is widely expected to be voted in as chairman of the central committee, which decides on all the key policy issues.

Leadership of the Likud bureau, which sets the party's ideology, is expected to go to deputy foreign minister Zeev Elkin, another party rebel.

And one of the frontrunners for the chairmanship of the Likud secretariat is Miri Regev, another rebel from the party's far right.

Danon sparked uproar this month when he came out against a Palestinian state -- a position firmly at odds with Netanyahu's public stance on the issue.

"If Secretary Kerry, whose efforts we support, were to pitch a tent halfway between here and Ramallah - that's 15 minutes away driving time - I'm in it, I'm in the tent," Netanyahu told the Washington Post last week in reference to US Secretary of State John Kerry.

"And I'm committed to stay in the tent and negotiate for as long as it takes to work out a solution of peace and security between us and the Palestinians."

But Danon said the government was not serious about it and that moves to create one would be opposed by most of the coalition.

Netanyahu appears to be facing a wider revolt on the two-state solution, after Israeli ministers began openly expressing their opposition to the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

Analyst Yossi Verter said in Haaretz newspaper that "Netanyahu now finds himself in the worst possible situation for a party chairman: He's not a player. He doesn't count".

Commentators pointed out the prime minister had not even presented his candidacy for president of the party at the Likud conference, as Danon's victory seemed assured.

Faced with this opposition, Netanyahu could even quit Likud, as did former premier Ariel Sharon, who exited the same party to create the centrist Kadima in 2005, wrote Verter.

"It's hard to know what he's thinking: Either he has lost his fighting spirit and is giving up, or in his heart, he knows that in the next election, he won't be running at the head of this party," he added.