Jerusalem: Israeli plans to build 238 new settler homes in east Jerusalem, as reported in Friday`s press, provoked a furious response from the Palestinians who said Israel was bent on "killing" peace talks.
The plans for new housing units in the settlement neighbourhoods 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.
"Netanyahu has made his choice: settlements over peace," he said. "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 threatened with imminent collapse in 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 during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden that it would build 1,600 new settler homes in east Jerusalem, prompting a major crisis with Washington.
"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." Erakat said the approval of hundreds more homes on occupied and annexed land in east Jerusalem proved Netanyahu was bent on frustrating the negotiations.
"This decision shows that the position of the Israeli prime minister has not changed," he said. "Instead, he continues to take every possible step to prevent the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state. By tendering in the occupied Palestinian territory Netanyahu has once again demonstrated why there are no negotiations today."
The housing ministry did not respond to an AFP request to confirm the proposals, and Netanyahu`s spokesman said he was "not familiar" with any such plans.
However, the top-selling Yediot Aharonot daily quoted senior government officials as saying Netanyahu not only knew about the move but had coordinated it 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."
A senior cabinet member quoted in the same article said the plans had been debated at length with the US administration. "It is a symbolic decision... We don`t want to quarrel with (the US administration) and break the rules of the game," he added, predicting that 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.
Netanyahu has so far refused to reimpose the freeze on West Bank construction, largely because he lacks support for such a move within his right-wing coalition. Israel seized east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed it shortly afterwards in a move not recognised 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.