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Middle East: Israel announces new housing tenders in East Jerusalem

Saturday, October 16, 2010 11:43:12 AM,  DPA

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Jerusalem: Israel said Friday its housing ministry published tenders for 238 new housing units in East Jerusalem, a move which could further jeopardise the already uncertain resumption of direct negotiations with the Palestinians.

The tenders were the first to be published in the annexed eastern section of the disputed city for 10 months.

The apartments were being planned in Pisgat Zeev and Ramot -- two Jewish neighbourhoods of Jerusalem built beyond the "green line" that separates Israel from the West Bank, or on occupied land under international law.

The tenders sparked an angry Palestinian reaction, with chief negotiator Saeb Erekat saying Israel was to blame for the collapse of direct talks and was showing it preferred settlements over peace.

An anonymous Israeli government official confirmed to DPA that the tenders had been authorised. He would give no further details.

But Israel Army Radio quoted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office as explaining the decision was taken by Housing Minister Ariel Atias of the ultra-Orthodox coalition Shas party.

It added Netanyahu had been briefed, and the White House was also informed -- to avoid an embarrassing fallout similar to that of last March, when a local planning committee announced the construction of 1,600 apartments in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlement of Ramat Shlomo during a visit of an unaware US Vice President Joe Biden.

Netanyahu said at the time he had not been informed.

Netanyahu's office stressed no building freeze had existed in East Jerusalem, but the prime minister's office was only monitoring the activity of other offices -- the district planning committee and the housing ministry -- to "avoid being caught by surprise during sensitive times as had happened in the past", Army Radio said.

In Washington, the US expressed "disappointment" and said it had protested to Israel that the move was "contrary to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties", said Philip Crowley, spokesperson for the US State Department.

Asked by a reporter whether there had been a tacit understanding between the US and Israel on the issue, Crowley said only that the Israeli government was "well aware of our concerns about this".

Israel radio had earlier quoted a senior official in Jerusalem as saying that Washington did not immediately take "drastic" action to prevent the move.

Israel did not wish to torpedo the peace process, but a building freeze in its self-declared capital was impossible, said the official. A severe housing shortage existed in Jerusalem and no land was available in the western section of the city, he argued.

"These tenders show that their (Israel's) choice is settlements and not peace, and for this reason negotiations have reached a dead end," Erekat told reporters after meeting European Union Middle East envoy Mark Otte at his West Bank office.

He said he had made telephone calls to the US and European leaders, asking for their support in case the Palestinians decide to push through a UN resolutions explicitly stating their right to a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as their capital.

The Palestinians and their Arab supporters are contemplating turning to the international body for recognition of their right to a state within the border of before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

That would add more weight to their already internationally recognised case that any Israeli construction beyond those borders -- or the "green line" -- is illegal.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in Brussels Friday that the Arab League may submit a request for a UN resolution supporting a Palestinian state within the 1967 border as early as November.

Israel and the Palestinians revived direct peace talks between them only in early September, as many as 17 months after Netanyahu of the Likud party took office at the head of a coalition with mostly right-wing and ultra-right parties.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was reluctant to enter into negotiations with the nationalist premier -- and made a freeze of all Israeli construction in the occupied territories a precondition.

Netanyahu imposed a 10-month, partial freeze in a bid to get the talks going, but that moratorium expired Sep 26. He has said he cannot and will not extend the freeze. Washington is making a frantic effort to broker a compromise.

The moratorium excluded East Jerusalem, but it was understood that Israel nonetheless committed to Washington to avoid any major provocative projects there for the time being, albeit de-facto.

Netanyahu is under pressure from the hawkish members of his government, but Welfare Minister Yitzhak Herzog, of the Labour Party, his most dovish coalition partner, said his party would reconsider staying in the government if the peace talks collapsed.

The fate of the negotiations would be sealed within in the next two weeks, he said.





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