By Joel Greenberg
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 9:07 AM
JERUSALEM - The Israeli Interior Ministry said Monday that it was moving ahead with plans for construction of about 1,300 new apartments in areas of the West Bank annexed to Jerusalem, a step likely to complicate Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's current visit to the United States for talks about reviving stalled peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Those negotiations were relaunched in September but have been effectively suspended in a dispute over continued Israeli building in West Bank settlements and in East Jerusalem. After Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month moratorium on new building in the settlements, the Palestinians said they would not resume talks unless the construction is halted.
The Interior Ministry move was promptly condemned by the Palestinians.
"We thought that Netanyahu would go to the States to announce a cessation of settlement activities to pave the way for direct negotiations to resume," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. "Unfortunately, he chose to send a strong message that his choice is settlements and not peace."
It was not immediately clear whether Netanyahu, who spoke Monday at a gathering of American Jewish leaders in New Orleans, was aware in advance of the latest planning move, or whether the step had been coordinated with his office. He met on Sunday with Vice President Biden, and is scheduled to meet on Thursday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
A U.S. State Department spokesman said Clinton would raise the issue with Netanyahu.
"We were deeply disappointed by the announcement of advanced planning for new housing units in sensitive areas of East Jerusalem. It is counterproductive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
"We have long urged both parties to avoid actions which could undermine trust, including in Jerusalem, and we will continue to work to resume direct negotiations."
The publication of the new building plans for public objections came a day after invitations for bids were issued for construction of 80 new homes in another area annexed to Jerusalem. The moves signaled a departure from a quiet freeze of new building plans in contested areas of the city since March, when the approval of plans for 1,600 homes during a visit to Israel by Biden seriously strained relations with Washington.
The Interior Ministry said that plans had been published Friday for construction of 978 apartments in the neighborhood of Har Homa and 320 more in the neighborhood of Ramot, both built on West Bank land annexed by Israel to Jerusalem after the 1967 war. After public objections are heard, months could pass before actual building begins, a ministry spokeswoman said.
Sarah Kreimer, associate director of Ir Amim, an Israeli group that monitors Israeli activity in East Jerusalem and publicized the latest planning move, said that Netanyhau was "thumbing his nose at the U.S. administration" and the Interior Ministry's announcement "was a direct insult."
An Israeli official who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject, said that in every peace plan considered in recent years, new Jewish neighborhoods built in Jerusalem would remain part of Israel. "Building in these neighborhoods in no way contradicts our desire to move ahead toward peace and a two-state solution," he said.
The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state they seek in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this story. Greenberg is a special correspondent.