By Josef Federman
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
JERUSALEM, Feb. 12 -- Israel announced plans Tuesday to build more than 1,100 apartments in disputed East Jerusalem, infuriating the Palestinians and triggering a new crisis in already troubled peace talks.
Palestinian officials accused Israel of undermining efforts to reach a peace agreement by the end of the year and urged a halt to the project.
The fate of East Jerusalem is among the thorniest issues in the peace talks. Israel captured the area in the 1967 Middle East war, later formally annexing it and building a string of neighborhoods that are now home to 180,000 Israelis.
Israel expects to retain Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem under a peace deal, but the Palestinians see construction there as threatening a final agreement.
The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem, which includes the walled Old City, as the capital of a future independent state and have been urging Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to halt construction in the area.
Israel's housing minister, Zeev Boim, announced the latest construction plans in response to assertions from Jerusalem's city manager that Olmert was holding up work in East Jerusalem. Boim said a partial building freeze ordered recently applied only to settlements in the West Bank and not to Jerusalem.
"We are building all over Jerusalem within its municipal borders. What people call delays are in fact final stages of coordination with City Hall," Boim told Israel Radio.
He said plans were underway to build 370 apartments in Har Homa and an additional 750 in Pisgat Zeev, two Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
Israel disclosed a similar plan in December to build 307 homes in Har Homa, days after resuming peace talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at a U.S.-hosted summit in Annapolis, Md. That plan drew U.S. criticism and stalled the talks for weeks.
At the Annapolis summit, Olmert and Abbas set a December 2008 target for reaching a final peace accord. On Tuesday, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the latest construction threatens chances of meeting that goal.
"We condemn these Israeli declarations, and once again we ask the Israeli government to give peace a chance by stopping all settlement activity," he said.
In Washington, White House press secretary Dana Perino said she had not seen Boim's comments. "But, obviously, there's no doubt that an announcement of that sort would make the Palestinians concerned," she said.
Such disagreements were expected, Perino said. "What we're seeing now," she added, "is what we forecast would happen, which is there are going to be difficult issues that they have to resolve, and there was going to be halting progress."
Olmert, who was on a visit to Germany, did not comment directly on the uproar but said talks on Jerusalem would be put off to the end of the negotiating process.
"We try to move on forward through those issues which can be resolved, perhaps, faster than the others," he said. "Some other issues are on the agenda, but they will be discussed later, including the issue of Jerusalem."
East Jerusalem is home to 208,000 Palestinians, according to a recent Palestinian census. The Palestinians hope to establish an independent state that includes the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as their capital. Israel captured all three areas in the 1967 war but withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
Olmert has signaled a readiness to relinquish parts of the West Bank and some Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem as part of a final peace deal.