JERUSALEM, (AP) – Israel announced plans to build 1,400 new apartments in the West Bank and disputed part of Jerusalem, despite warnings by Palestinians and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that they could hurt peace efforts between the two sides.
While the announcement Monday could further damage the standing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak moved on Tuesday to bolster the moderate leader, saying he will consider opening the Gaza Strip’s crossings if Palestinian militants there stop bombarding Israel with rockets.
The Israeli announcement on new construction came shortly after Rice wrapped up a two-day visit and left for Amman to meet Abbas. In the Jordanian capital, Rice said Israel should stop such construction projects, but to no avail.
The move reflects the political weakness of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who continues to support construction in disputed areas because it allows him to keep his fragile coalition intact — though it does damage to Abbas’ position.
Olmert insisted Israel is building only in places it intends to keep even after a peace treaty is signed.
At a U.S.-hosted peace conference in November, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to relaunch long-stalled talks and base negotiations on the 2003 “road map” peace plan. The U.S.-backed proposal calls on Israel to freeze all settlement activity and the Palestinians to rein in militants.
But Israel does not consider construction in east Jerusalem to be settlement activity because the Jewish state annexed it after capturing it in the 1967 Mideast war. The international community disagrees, however, because no one has recognized Israel’s annexation.
East Jerusalem is home to 180,000 Jews who live in neighborhoods built after the war. An additional 270,000 Jews live in West Bank settlements, most of them in three major blocs.
Palestinians charge that the ongoing construction is sabotaging peace efforts. Although they tacitly agree that Israel will, in the end, retain some or all of these areas, the bulldozers, cranes and work crews are tangible evidence to Palestinians that peace negotiations are not helping their cause, further complicating Abbas’ position.
But the Israeli defense minister’s openness to easing restrictions on Gaza could help reduce pressure on Abbas. Barak had previously opposed opening passages to the territory, which is controlled by Islamic Hamas militants.
Israel closed the crossings after Hamas overran Gaza in June, and has only let in limited humanitarian supplies since.
Political realities appeared to have driven Olmert’s announcement Monday. With his popularity battered by his inconclusive 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, he depends on Shas, a hawkish ultra-Orthodox party, for his coalition government’s parliamentary majority.
The announcement of 600 new housing units to go up in Jerusalem came from the Jerusalem city hall, but the larger project — 800 new apartments in Beitar Illit, an ultra-Orthodox settlement outside Jerusalem — came from Shas. Olmert is not in a position to deny it: Shas leaders have made repeated threats to bring down his government if Olmert crosses them.
Rice arrived in the region on Saturday for three days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials meant to advance the U.S. goal of achieving a peace agreement before President Bush leaves office in January 2009.
A senior U.S. official said the U.S. would like to push for an outline of an interim peace agreement by the time Bush visits the region in May.
At a news conference with Abbas in Jordan, Rice said it was her impression both sides were serious about advancing the talks. “I think it’s all moving in the right direction,” she said.
But she also warned Israel to halt new settlement activities that could upset progress. “Settlement activity should stop — expansion should stop,” Rice said.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the construction plans and appealed to the Americans to intervene. “This announcement is changing the situation on the ground for the worse,” Erekat said.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Stewart Tuttle declined to comment on the developments.
Meanwhile, in violence Tuesday, Israeli troops shot and killed two Hamas gunmen during a raid on the central Gaza Strip, Hamas said. The army confirmed troops operating against rocket launching squads in the area shot toward two gunmen who approached them.