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Israeli plans for more East Jerusalem housing angers Palestinians

From Kevin Flower, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Palestinian negotiator says Israel is choosing settlements over peace
  • An Israeli official calls the plans a step in the bureaucratic process
  • Protesters interrupt Netanyahu's speech in the United States

Jerusalem (CNN) -- The Israeli government said Monday it is proceeding with plans for about 1,000 new housing units in East Jerusalem, a move that the chief Palestinian negotiator said would derail already suspended peace talks.

Efrat Orbach, spokeswoman for Israel's Interior Ministry, told CNN that the ministry had published details for permits for the new units in the neighborhoods of Har Homa and Ramot. Both areas lie on the side of the Green Line generally considered part of East Jerusalem, the section of the city where Palestinians want to build their future capital.

Orbach said the units had been approved six months ago and last week's publication of details for the housing permits was advertised to allow the public to register any opposition to the construction.

The issue of settlement construction has been the first major obstacle of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resumed in August. The talks were suspended in September when Israel refused to extend a moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, told CNN that Monday's announcement shows Israel is committed to the settlements at the cost of a possible peace agreement.

"We condemn with the strongest possible term this Israeli decision," Erekat said, adding that Palestinians hoped Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would use his current U.S. visit to declare a halt to all settlement activities "in order to resume direct negotiations."

"Unfortunately, he once again has chosen settlement and not peace. Thus he has closed all doors in the face of negotiations and he is fully responsible for the derailment of these direct talks," Erekat said. "The only thing that you see going on the ground is settlement activities at the expense of peace."

Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, an Israeli activist group that monitors Israeli settlement construction, called the latest Israeli announcement a "grave provocation" by the government.

"Netanyahu is trying to create a crisis at a crucial time; he is trying to make the talks fail and that the Palestinians will be blamed for this failure and not the Israelis," Ofran said. In particular, she said, the plan for Har Homa would expand the neighborhood on more land, a result certain to anger the Palestinians.

Israel distinguishes between settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the area it seized in the Six-Day War of 1967 and considers part of its sovereign capital of Jerusalem. Netanyahu has said he would renew the West Bank settlement moratorium if Palestinians recognized Israel as a Jewish state -- something Palestinian leaders have refused to do.

Last week, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas renewed his call for an end to Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank as a prerequisite to resume the stalled peace talks. Abbas said appealing to the United States or United Nations is among the Palestinian options to end the standoff.

In response, Netanyahu reiterated earlier statements that appealing to international organizations wouldn't be in the best interests of the peace effort.

"We expect (of) the Palestinians that they will adhere to their obligation to renew direct peace talks in earnest without prior obligations," Netanyahu said. "All attempts to sidestep direct negotiations through international bodies will not move the negotiations in the direction of true and lasting peace between our two peoples, only direct talks."

Netanyahu appeared Monday before a U.S. Jewish group in New Orleans, Louisiana, to deliver a speech that was disrupted by people protesting his government's polices. At least five people were removed from the speech at the Jewish Federations of North America meeting. Some people in the crowd ripped up the protesters' banners.

In March, Netanyahu angered the United States when his government announced plans for more settlement construction in East Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting Israel. Biden and Netanyahu met on Sunday in New Orleans, before Biden addressed the Jewish federations' gathering.

In his speech, Biden downplayed reports of a rift in relations with Israel over the incident in March and other issues.

"I can tell you -- and I'm sure he (Netanyahu) will tell you as well -- that the disagreements when they existed have only been tactical in nature, they have never been fundamental," Biden said.

"This administration represents an unbroken chain of American leaders who have understood this critical strategic relationship -- one in which we will not yield one single inch," Biden said, adding that President Barack Obama "feels exactly the same way as I do."

CNN's Tom Cohen contributed to this story.