JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israel confirmed on Friday that the United States asked it to explain a plan to build new homes on occupied land in the Jerusalem area, a move Palestinians say could wreck peace talks launched just last week in Washington.
A senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said asking for explanations was not enough and demanded that U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration force Israel to abide by an agreement to halt all Jewish settlement activity. “The issue has come up in bilateral discussions,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, after Washington and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon voiced concern at the plan, which came to light days after Bush presided over a deal at Annapolis, Maryland to negotiate a peace treaty.
Disputes over settlements and Jerusalem, which Israel wants as its undivided capital and where Abbas wants East Jerusalem as capital of a Palestinian state, are central to negotiations Bush hopes can be concluded before he steps down in just 13 months.
Palestinians say building some 300 housing and other units at an existing Jewish development, known as Har Homa by Israel and Abu Ghneim by Arabs, breaches the undertaking Olmert gave last week to halt settlement activity in the West Bank — a renewal of a pledge made under the ‘road map’ plan of 2003.
Abbas’s administration asked Washington to halt the project.
Regev did not elaborate on the U.S.-Israeli discussions but said the tender for new building was part of a 7-year-old plan and repeated the Israeli position that the site falls outside the road map deal because Israel annexed the land, captured and occupied with the rest of the Palestinian territories in 1967.
The annexation of Arab East Jerusalem and incorporation of surrounding West Bank areas within much expanded Jerusalem city limits is not recognised internationally. Israel has settled Jews on much of that land, effectively isolating East Jerusalem.
The United States agreed at Annapolis to adjudicate on how far each side was meeting commitments. Israel’s main demand from the Palestinians is that Abbas curb militant attacks on the Jewish state before any final peace settlement is agreed.
Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdainah said Washington must act now: “Asking them to explain is not enough. The Americans must pressure the Israeli government to stop settlement activities. “Settlements are an obstacle for the negotiations and peace process. They weaken trust between Israelis and Palestinians.”
On Thursday, after three days in which the U.S. State Department had avoided substantive comment on the matter, a U.S. official said: “We don’t want any steps taken that would undermine the confidence of the parties. This is an issue that we have been concerned about and we have sought clarification.”
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said: “This new tender for 300 new homes in eastern Jerusalem, so soon after the Annapolis Middle East peace conference, I think is not helpful.”
Daniel Levy, an analyst at the New America Foundation, said the incident showed Washington needed to pay closer attention: “It indicates the need for the kind of U.S. babysitting that’s been absent seven years and apparently is still not there.”
Bush’s one-year deadline for a deal to end the 60-year-old conflict was greeted with scepticism by many on both sides who see Abbas and Olmert as too weak to implement an accord. The depth of feeling over settlement in the West Bank, where some 250,000 Jews live among 2.5 million Palestinians, is just one obstacle. Israel wants to draw a fortified border through the West Bank that would place major settlements inside a newly defined Israel and says it could remove outlying communities.
A poll published in Israel’s Maariv newspaper on Friday found only 17 percent of settlers living beyond the barrier Israel is building would be willing to leave even if they were offered twice the value of their property in compensation.
Palestinians say settlements and the occupying troops who protect them restrict their movement and dislocate the economy.
Israeli police said they were investigating complaints on Friday from Palestinian farmers near Hebron that settlers cut down and uprooted 42 olive trees, destroying their livelihood.