JERUSALEM, (AP) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made it clear Sunday she is unhappy about Israel’s ongoing construction in areas Palestinians want for their future state, giving the issue prominent mention ahead of meetings with Israeli leaders.
In what has become a near-monthly ritual, Rice is in the region to prod Israelis and Palestinians closer to a final peace deal as the chances of meeting the year-end target set by the sides appear to be slipping away.
Speaking ahead of a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Rice said she planned to raise the issue of Israeli settlement construction.
“I am very concerned that at a time when we need to build confidence between the parties the continued building and settlement activity has the potential to harm the negotiations going forward,” Rice said.
Israel announced last week it would build 1,300 new housing units in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as their future capital. The announcement brought to more than 3,000 the number of homes Israel has approved for construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank since the renewal of peace talks late last year. The Palestinians claim both areas, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as part of a future independent state.
Israel differentiates between east Jerusalem, which it annexed in 1967, and the West Bank, whose status remains unresolved.
“We make a clear distinction between the West Bank and Jerusalem,” government spokesman Mark Regev said Sunday. Israel also is building in Israeli-populated areas of the West Bank that it wants to keep under any peace agreement.
The Palestinians say the construction undermines the talks by demonstrating to Palestinians that peace efforts are futile.
When talks were launched in the U.S. late last year, both side agreed to try to seal a deal by the end of 2008, just before President Bush leaves office. But in recent weeks Israeli and Palestinian officials have acknowledged that gaps are still wide and they are unlikely to meet that deadline.
The talks are further complicated by the situation in the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the Islamic militants of Hamas and is the scene of regular clashes between the Israeli military and Palestinian gunmen who launch rockets and mortars at Israeli towns.
Egyptian attempts to achieve a truce between Israel and Hamas have not succeeded so far, but the effort continued Sunday, with Hamas officials scheduled to meet with Egypt’s powerful intelligence chief.
Israel has demanded that any truce deal include the release of an Israeli soldier held for two years by Hamas militants, a demand that Hamas rejects. And Hamas has said Israel must open Gaza’s blockaded crossings, which Israel fears will only allow the group to strengthen its hold on Gaza and further increase its already considerable arsenal. Hamas officials have openly stated that is their goal.
Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, criticized Rice’s visit. “The visit of Rice and her continuous identical statements reflect how much the Americans are biased toward the Israelis and how they are trying to blackmail the Palestinian negotiators,” he said.
Israel has hesitated to launch a large military operation in Gaza despite the near-daily bombardments from the territory because of concerns that such a move would end with high Israeli casualties and might not stop the rocket fire for long. Past offensives in Gaza have failed to halt the crude rockets.
Israel’s deputy defense minister, Matan Vilnai, said Sunday that Israel had to make every effort to see if a Gaza truce could be attained.
“It looks like with Hamas it will have to end with a military blow. But an organization that takes itself seriously must look at all the possibilities before that,” he told Army Radio.