Israel announced yesterday that it will build nearly 700 apartments in East Jerusalem, drawing criticism from both Palestinians and Washington, which denounced the plan as an obstacle to peacemaking.
The dispute over East Jerusalem is the most intractable – and explosive – in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state and consider Jewish neighbourhoods there to be settlements. Israel claims all of the city as its eternal capital.
The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a slowdown in West Bank settlement construction several weeks ago in hopes of bringing the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. But the order did not include construction in East Jerusalem, home to sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites. "We make a distinction between the West Bank and Jerusalem. Jerusalem is our capital and remains such," said government spokesman Mark Regev.
The Housing Ministry said it had approved a total of 692 new apartments in three existing Jewish neighbourhoods – Pisgat Zeev, Neve Yaakov and Har Homa – already inhabited by tens of thousands of people. Israel does not consider its East Jerusalem neighbourhoods to be settlements. It captured the city's eastern sector in the 1967 Six Day War and immediately annexed the area. The international community does not recognise the annexation.
"We condemn this Israeli policy of continuing settlement activities, and we hope this will be an eye-opener for the US administration," said Palestinian official Saeb Erekat.
The Palestinians have refused to reopen peace talks, which broke down a year ago, until Mr Netanyahu halts all settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. For months, the United States has been trying to bring the sides together. An Israeli official said the government had informed the Obama administration about the latest planned construction. However, a US official said the construction was another blow to peace efforts. "We feel that unilateral actions make it harder for people to get back together at the table, and that's what our goals are," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity pending a formal reaction from Washington.
Mr Netanyahu announced the settlement slowdown last month in an effort to rekindle peace talks with the Palestinians. But the Palestinians have rebuffed that overture because the order does not affect East Jerusalem or block construction that is already under way on 3,000 settlement apartments.
Settlement construction became the key sticking point in resuming negotiations after US President Barack Obama demanded a total cessation shortly after taking office. He has since softened his stance, but the Palestinians have not.
News of the East Jerusalem construction plans was disclosed as a former Israeli MP reported that Mr Netanyahu was hammering out an agreement with the Americans on a framework for relaunching peace talks.