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U.S. criticizes Jerusalem plan for new housing

November 18, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

JERUSALEM — Israel's plan to add 844 homes to a part of Jerusalem claimed by Palestinians drew sharp international protest Tuesday as U.S. officials denounced it as a blow to their already troubled effort to restart peace talks.

The Jerusalem Planning Committee's approval of the project is one step short of a final go-ahead to expand Gilo, a neighborhood built on land Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office responded to the criticism by insisting that it is Israel's prerogative to build anywhere in the city.

That was a setback for the Obama administration, which is scrambling to break a diplomatic impasse and talk Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas out of his threat to step down and abandon years of efforts to make peace with the Jewish state.

President Obama's envoy to the region, George J. Mitchell, had pleaded with Netanyahu to postpone the neighborhood expansion, a State Department official said. Israeli news media said a Netanyahu aide rebuffed the request in a Monday meeting with Mitchell in London.

The White House said it was "dismayed" by the planning committee's decision Tuesday. The new housing would be built on the edge of Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood in south Jerusalem, on land Palestinians in the nearby village of Wallajeh say was taken from them. Gilo is home to 40,000 Israelis.

"At a time when we are working to relaunch negotiations, these actions make it more difficult," said a statement from White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. "Neither party should engage in efforts or take actions that could unilaterally preempt, or appear to preempt, negotiations."

Jerusalem has been an issue in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks for years. Israel annexed the parts of Jerusalem it captured in 1967 and built neighborhoods now populated by about 180,000 Jews. Palestinian leaders, who want to redivide the city and make its eastern part the capital of a future state, have refused to resume talks unless Israel halts the growth of those neighborhoods and of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. U.S.-brokered talks collapsed last December.

The Obama administration's efforts to restart the negotiations hit an impasse in recent weeks. After months of failure to secure a halt to Israeli housing construction in the disputed neighborhoods and the West Bank, the administration is now urging the Palestinians to go back to talks without an explicit freeze, even as it presses Israel to observe an informal one.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the planned expansion of Gilo shows the Obama administration's impotence. "It is meaningless to resume negotiations when this goes on," he said.

Netanyahu's office responded by restating his willingness to impose "the greatest possible restraint" on settlement growth in the West Bank to facilitate a new round of talks. But the statement said, "Jerusalem is Israel's capital and will remain as such."

That position is universally rejected by other countries, which regard Jewish neighborhoods in the city's annexed parts and the West Bank settlements as illegal and an impediment to peace.

Britain and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon joined in condemning the Gilo project.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said Israel's critics were, in effect, advocating a freeze based on religious discrimination against Jews.

Tuesday's decision opened the building project to a 60-day period of comments and objections from the public in advance of a final decision.

Israeli media, citing leaks by Israeli officials, broke news of the U.S.-Israeli dispute over Gilo hours before the decision. Until then, the project was so obscure that Netanyahu "could easily have responded positively to U.S. concerns and quietly quashed or delayed it without any political cost," said Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now, an advocacy group opposed to Jewish settlements.

But with the Israeli leader now implicitly behind the project, she said, "it will require the investment of serious political capital to stop."

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boudreaux@latimes.com

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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