Israeli housing plan disappoints U.S., EU

Israel's government has given the final go-ahead for the construction of 1,100 new housing units in east Jerusalem, a move that has already attracted condemnation.
Israel's government has approved construction of 1,100 new housing units in east Jerusalem, raising already heightened tensions fuelled by last week's Palestinian move to seek UN membership. (Nir Elias/Reuters)

Israel's government has given the final go-ahead for the construction of 1,100 new housing units in east Jerusalem.

The move has heightened tensions, which are already high following a Palestinian move last week to seek UN membership.

Israel's Interior Ministry announced Tuesday that it had given the final approval for the new homes to be built in Gilo, a sprawling Israeli enclave in southeast Jerusalem. It said construction could begin after a mandatory 60-day period for public comment, a process that is largely a formality.

The announcement drew swift condemnation from the Palestinians, who claim east Jerusalem as their future capital. The United States, European Union and United Nations all expressed disappointment with Israel's decision.

The Palestinians have demanded that Israel halt all settlement construction in east Jerusalem and the adjacent West Bank — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — as a condition for resuming peace talks.

Israel says east Jerusalem, home to sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites, is an eternal part of its undivided capital.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the Israeli decision amounted to "1,100 no's to the resumption of peace talks."

He urged the United States, Israel's closest and most important ally, to change its position and support the Palestinians in their quest for UN membership.

"This [the Israeli housing plan] sends the wrong signal at this sensitive time," said Richard Miron, spokesman for UN Mideast envoy Robert Serry.

EU calls for reversal of Israeli plan

In Strasbourg, France, the European Union's foreign policy chief said the Israeli housing plan "should be reversed" since it undermines peace negotiations.

Catherine Ashton told the EU parliament Tuesday that she heard "with deep regret" that Israeli settlement plans were continuing.

Ashton said the expansion of settlements "threatens the viability of an agreed two-state solution" between the two sides, as backed by the Quartet of Mideast mediators — the EU, the United States, Russia and the United Nations.

"This plan should be reversed," she said.

The U.S. expressed deep disappointment over Israel's approval of the settlements. State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said it was counterproductive to efforts to restart direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

With peace talks stalled for the past three years, the Palestinians last week asked the United Nations to recognize an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip.

The U.S. opposes the measure and has vowed to veto the request in the Security Council. Like Israel, the U.S. says a Palestinian state can only be established through negotiations.

In an interview published Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would not freeze settlement construction again.

Speaking to the Jerusalem Post, he said that a 10-month moratorium on new construction last year failed to yield results. He said he saw no need for another freeze.

Netanyahu says negotiations should begin without any preconditions.

At the UN, the world body's political chief says Israel and the Palestinians remain far apart on reaching a peace accord but insists "now is time for everyone to give diplomacy a chance."

B. Lynn Pascoe says "the passions of last week" — when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged leaders to support his bid for UN membership and Netanyahu opposed it without a negotiated settlement — demonstrates the divide.

But he told the Security Council at its monthly Mideast briefing Tuesday that there are now building blocks in place that could help negotiations.

Pascoe said these include a timetable by the Quartet of Mideast mediators, calling for negotiations to resume in a month and a final settlement by the end of 2012.