JERUSALEM: Israel’s government ended an unofficial freeze on new building in east Jerusalem, approving the construction of 238 homes in Jewish neighborhoods as peace talks remained stuck 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 currently 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. The Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to do so.
Both sides have indicated compromise is possible, but attempts by US mediators to break the impasse have failed so far. Israel’s new construction announcement further soured the atmosphere.
“This announcement is a very clear-cut indication that the choice of Mr. Netanyahu is settlements, not peace,’’ the chief negotiator, Mr Saeb Erekat said, charging the Israelis with “closing all doors on attempts to revive the direct negotiations.’’
Netanyahu’s office refused to comment 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 US administration and cut the number of planned units by several hundred to temper American displeasure, Israeli officials said. The US was unhappy with Israel’s decision but were not caught by surprise by the announcement, the officials said, 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 the Vice President, Mr Joe Biden, catching the US administration off guard and sparking a crisis in relations between the close allies.
There was no immediate public comment from U.S. officials Friday. Around 180,000 Israelis live in neighborhoods 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 US have said Israeli construction there is provocative nonetheless and undermines peace talks.
The Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Mr Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said on Friday that if Israel continues to build settlements Arab nations might seek UN recognition of a Palestinian state without Israel’s approval.
Mr Aboul Gheit said the Arab League’s request to the UN on the matter might come as early as next month.
A unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence would have few practical implications, but would serve to increase international pressure on Israel.