Plan draws swift Palestinian condemnation
Israel's government ended an unofficial freeze on new building in east Jerusalem, approving the construction of 238 homes in Jewish neighbourhoods as peace talks remained stuck on Friday over the fate of a broader construction slowdown throughout the West Bank.
The Israeli Housing Ministry's announcement that developers would be allowed to bid for contracts to build new homes in the neighbourhoods of Ramot and Pisgat Zeev drew swift condemnation from Palestinian negotiators.
Peace talks that began in early September are deadlocked over a Palestinian demand that Israel extend a slowdown on settlement construction that expired last month. The Palestinians are threatening to quit the negotiations unless Israel reinstates the building restrictions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to do so.
Both sides have indicated compromise is possible, but attempts by U.S. mediators to break the impasse have failed so far. Israel's construction announcement further soured the atmosphere.
“This announcement is a very clear-cut indication that the choice of Mr. Netanyahu is settlements, not peace,” said chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, charging the Israelis with “closing all doors on attempts to revive the direct negotiations”.
Mr. Netanyahu's office refused to comment on Friday.
The Israeli settlement slowdown imposed last November in the West Bank did not officially include east Jerusalem, which Israel claims as part of its capital. But before Friday, Israel had quietly halted building there as well without explicitly saying it was doing so.
Israel discussed the new construction with the U.S. administration and cut the number of planned units by several hundred to temper American displeasure, said Israeli officials. The U.S. was unhappy with Israel's decision but were not caught by surprise by the announcement, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.
An Israeli announcement earlier this year of new building in east Jerusalem came during a visit by Vice-President Joe Biden, catching the U.S. administration off guard and sparking a crisis in relations between the close allies.
There was no immediate public comment from U.S. officials on Friday.
Around 180,000 Israelis live in neighbourhoods Israel has built in east Jerusalem since capturing the area from Jordan in 1967. The eastern sector of the city is home to around 250,000 Palestinians, and Palestinians hope to make it the capital of a future state.
Past peace plans have proposed leaving the Jewish neighbourhoods under Israeli sovereignty. But Palestinians and the U.S. have said Israeli construction there is provocative nonetheless and undermines peace talks.
Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said if Israel continued to build settlements, Arab nations might seek U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state without Israel's approval. — AP