Israel draws rebuke from U.S. after East Jerusalem building plan advances

September 27, 2011

Israel advanced plans Tuesday to build 1,100 homes in a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, drawing condemnations from Palestinian officials and a sharp rebuke from the Obama administration, which warned that the move could undercut efforts to restart negotiations.

The Israeli decision— a procedural step in a permitting process that was already underway — comes at a particularly sensitive moment, after a controversial Palestinian application last week for membership in the United Nations and amid parallel efforts by global powers to prod the two sides to sit down together for the first time in more than a year.

The “Quartet” of Middle East mediators — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russiaproposed new talks to begin next month with the aim of reaching a comprehensive settlement by the end of 2012. But the Palestinians have said they will not return to negotiations unless Israel halts construction of settlements on land they seek for a future state. They claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

A spokeswoman for the Israeli Interior Ministry said the Jerusalem District Planning Committee had advanced the housing plan in the neighborhood of Gilo, which is built on West Bank land annexed to Jerusalem, making the project available for public objections for a mandatory 60-day period before a decision on final approval.

Roei Lachmanovich, a spokesman for Interior Minister Eli Yishai, said the move was purely technical and “by no means a signal” to the Palestinians. Other Israeli officials agreed, saying the timing of the decision was a local matter outside the direct control of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu--who, in fact, has intervened in the past to delay such plans.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the Israeli decision amounted to “1,100 nos to the resumption of peace talks.”

“Israel wants to ensure that there will be no land left for a two-state solution,” he said.

The Quartet proposal calls on the Israelis and Palestinians “to refrain from provocative actions if negotiations are to be effective” and reiterates their obligations under the 2003 blueprint for peace known as the “road map,” which calls for an Israeli settlement freeze and a cessation of violence by the Palestinians.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the Israeli move “counterproductive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties.”

“As you know, we have long urged both sides to avoid any kind of action which could undermine trust, including, and perhaps most particularly, in Jerusalem, any action that could be viewed as provocative by either side,” Clinton said at a news conference.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration was “deeply disappointed” by Israel’s announcement.

“We have maintained all along that each side in the dispute between the Palestinians and the Israelis should take steps that bring them closer to direct negotiations to resolve the issues that stand in the way of Palestinian statehood and a secure Jewish state of Israel,” Carney told reporters traveling aboard Air Force One. “When either side takes unilateral action, it makes it harder to achieve that. We make our views known, just as we did, obviously, with regard to the Palestinian action at the United Nations.”

The E.U.’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said the Israeli decision “should be reversed.”

The United Nations also criticized the move. “This sends the wrong signal at this sensitive time,” said Richard Miron, spokesman for the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry. “Settlement activity is contrary to the Roadmap and to international law and undermines the prospect of resuming negotiations and reaching a two-state solution to the conflict.”

Israeli officials sought to play down the decision, noting that the proposed Gilo construction project had long been in the works and undergoing normal bureaucratic review. Netanyahu, in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, said the Gilo building plan was being handled “the same way Israeli governments have been doing for years.”

“We plan in Jerusalem. We build in Jerusalem, period,” Netanyahu said.

He ruled out another Israeli settlement freeze after a 10-month moratorium on new building expired last September, leading the Palestinians to break off negotiations. “We already gave at the office,” Netanyahu said.

greenbergj@washpost.com

Warrick and staff writer Scott Wilson contributed to this report from Washington.

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