Israel shrugs off Obama's criticism of new settlements

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 9, 2010 

JERUSALEM — Israel shrugged off criticism from President Barack Obama and other world leaders Tuesday and reaffirmed its commitment to East Jerusalem settlements in a audacious new construction project.

Obama led a tide of world criticism against Israel's announcement that it would build 1,300 new homes for Jewish settlers in largely Arab East Jerusalem, but Israel rejected the criticism by restating its intention to expand the settlements.

"Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is the capital of the state of Israel," began a statement made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "Israel sees no link between the peace process and its development plans in Jerusalem."

Earlier, Obama had told reporters in Indonesia that the decision to expand settlements could undermine the already shaky peace talks.

"This kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations," Obama said. "I'm concerned that we're not seeing each side make the extra effort to get a breakthrough that could finally create a framework for a secure Israel living side-by-side in peace with a sovereign Palestine.

"Each of these incremental steps can end up breaking trust."

The latest building announcement, which includes 980 homes in the Har Homa area and another 320 in Ramot, is the largest proposed expansion of Jewish presence in east Jerusalem since March, when an Israeli announcement of 1,600 homes disrupted a diplomatic visit to the region by Vice President Joe Biden.

Following an period of icy relations between Obama and Netanyahu, the U.S. announced fledgling peace talks on Sept. 2. Those talks, however, never really got under way.

An Israeli freeze on new settlement building expired on Sept. 26, and the Palestinians refused to conduct peace negotiations until it was resumed. U.S. officials said they were trying to reach a compromise between the two sides, though no proposals have been made been public.

The most recent construction announcement by Israel came at a particularly sensitive time, as Netanyahu was visiting the U.S. to speak at a convention of Jewish Federations, and meet with U.S. officials to and negotiate a compromise.

Less than 24 hours before Netanyahu's departure, an Israeli newspaper printed the building tenders for the 1,300 new homes in East Jerusalem.

An aide from Netanyahu's office called the timing "coincidental," though he added that the building was in keeping with Israel's stated position on Jerusalem.

In Israel, political officials remarked that there was "deja vu" over the announcement made by Israel during Biden's visit.

That announcement was considered a "slap in the face" at the White House, and Netanyahu claimed he was unaware that it would be made during Biden's trip. Israeli officials assured Obama that such announcements in future would not be made without the approval of the prime minister's office.

This week, news of the building tenders began to be published as Biden met with Netanyahu at the convention for the Jewish Federations of North America in Florida.

Biden didn't issue a statement regarding the new announcement, though Palestinians said that the vice president should be "insulted" by the Israeli maneuver.

In a public statement, Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called on the international community to move toward the recognition of a Palestinian state.

"Israel's latest announcement of more settlement construction further threatens the already stagnated negotiations process," he said in a statement. "This latest unilateral Israeli act necessitates dramatic international action for immediate recognition of the Palestinian state (based) on the June 4, 1967, borders."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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