Israel eyes new Jerusalem settler homes to Palestinian fury

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JERUSALEM: Israel is planning to build 238 new settler homes in Arab east Jerusalem, reports said on Friday, prompting Palestinian accusations the Jewish state was bent on "killing" peace talks.

The plans for new housing units in the settlement neighborhoods of Pisgat Zeev and Ramot were approved on Thursday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Ynet news website said, in a move likely to complicate US efforts to revive peace talks.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat said the move proved Israel was intent on "killing" every opportunity to revive peace talks between the two sides.

"We call upon the US administration to hold the Israeli government responsible for the collapse of the negotiations and the peace process as a result of this government’s insistence on killing every opportunity for resuming negotiations," he said.

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians are facing imminent collapse in the face of a row about settlement building on occupied land, which restarted on September 26 after temporary restrictions on building expired.

Although the 10-month freeze did not cover construction in east Jerusalem, Netanyahu had quietly avoided signing off on any such projects in order to avoid the political fallout, Ynet said.

Settlement watchdog Peace Now said it was the first time such a plan had been approved since March, when Israel said it would build 1,600 new settler homes in east Jerusalem during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden, prompting a major crisis with Washington.

The group said the announcement betrayed a desire within the Israeli government to undermine fledgling peace talks with the Palestinians.

"The fact is that someone – either the housing minister or the prime minister – is trying to make a point: they want to make it harder on peace efforts," Peace Now’s Hagit Ofran told AFP.

"Such a decision is going to be a problem for the continuation of the talks and this is exactly what they were trying to achieve."

The housing ministry did not respond to an AFP request to confirm the proposals, and Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev said he could not confirm or deny the report as he was "not familiar" with any such plans.

However, in an article headlined "Consensual Construction," top-selling daily Yediot Aharonot quoted senior government officials as saying Netanyahu not only knew about the move but had coordinated it in advance with Washington.

"This initiative was coordinated with the prime minister’s office," Housing Minister Ariel Attias told the paper, while senior sources in Netanyahu’s office said it was "a decision of the housing minister which the prime minister knew about."

And a senior cabinet member quoted in the same article said the construction plans had been debated at length with the US administration.

"It is a symbolic decision which, even so, took a long time to make," he said, indicating that US officials had pushed Netanyahu to delay the announcement.

"We don’t want to quarrel with them and break the rules of the game," he added, predicting Washington would issue only a "weak condemnation" of the proposals.

Peace Now’s Ofran suggested the move could also be interpreted as a quid pro quo for the settler lobby ahead of a decision to reimpose a freeze on construction in the West Bank.

"It could be that Netanyahu knows that he will have to reimpose the freeze in the West Bank and needs to give something to the settlers," she said, adding that the invitation to tender for the planned homes was likely to be issued in the coming months.

Until now, Netanyahu has refused to contemplate a new temporary freeze on West Bank construction, largely because he lacks support for such a move within his right-wing coalition.

Israel seized Arab east Jerusalem in the Six Day War of 1967 and annexed it shortly afterwards in a move not recognized by the international community or the Palestinians, who consider it the capital of their promised state.

The Palestinians see the settlements as a major threat to the establishment of a viable state, and they view the freezing of settlement activity as a crucial test of Israel’s intentions.


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