An ultra-Orthodox Jewish boy walks past a private villa under construction… (Jim Hollander, EPA )
Reporting from Jerusalem — Israel's Interior Ministry approved plans Thursday for 1,600 new housing units in a development built on annexed land in East Jerusalem, a construction project that angered Obama administration officials when it was announced last year.
The move also strains relations with Palestinians as they prepared to seek recognition of statehood at the United Nations next month.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai suggested that expanding the Ramat Shlomo project was aimed at alleviating a housing shortage that helped spark a wave of protest in the last month by Israelis seeking social and economic reforms.
Recently, 42 lawmakers, more than a third of Israel's parliament, urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to solve the housing crisis by building tens of thousands of new units, including on occupied land.
Peace Now, a nongovernmental organization advocating dismantling of the settlements and Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, dismissed the linkage between expanding Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and the housing problems.
"This is a cynical exploitation of the housing crisis in order to promote the settlement policy," said Hagit Ofran, director of the group's Settlement Watch project.
The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, charged that the move was "further proof that this government is committed to investing in occupation rather than peace."
As September nears, Israel has engaged in intense diplomacy to reduce support for recognizing Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. Efforts to resume direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are continuing, but so far have failed.
Given Israel's complicated approval process for housing construction, it was unclear whether the Interior Ministry's action Thursday constituted final approval.
International leaders have recently expressed concern over Israel's continued construction of disputed housing projects.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton condemned the approval last week of an additional 930 units in the East Jerusalem project of Har Homa. "The European Union has repeatedly urged the government of Israel to immediately end all settlement activities in the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem," she said in a statement. "All settlement activities are illegal under international law."
In an apparent reference to the Har Homa project, the State Department said "such unilateral actions work against efforts to resume direct negotiations."
The Ramat Shlomo housing project has been a source of contention between Israel and the United States. A previous announcement of the plan was made in March 2010, embarrassing Vice President Joe Biden as he arrived in Israel on an official visit.
Netanyahu told a visiting delegation of Democratic members of Congress on Wednesday that he was committed to peace with the Palestinians but rejected preconditions and unilateral actions.
"The only way to achieve peace between us and the Palestinians is through direct negotiations," he said.
Meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres this week, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House and the head of the congressional delegation, said it was a mistake for Palestinians to seek U.N. recognition now. "We urge the Palestinians and the Israelis to return to the negotiating table without preconditions," he said.
Sobelman is a news assistant in The Times' Jerusalem bureau.