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Netanyahu affirms settlement project that U.S. considers 'affront'

A Palestinian woman walks past an Ultra-orthodox Jewish man and an Israeli border police officer in Jerusalem's Old City.
A Palestinian woman walks past an Ultra-orthodox Jewish man and an Israeli border police officer in Jerusalem's Old City. Tara Todras-Whitehill / AP

RAMAT SHLOMO, Israel — From the window of her home in East Jerusalem, Chana-Rivka Leviv can see the valley where the Israeli government says it will soon begin to build 1,600 new apartment units — one of which is destined for her family.

"We all just need to build. The rest of the world can scream and threaten as much as they want. Jerusalem is our home and we will continue to build here for our children's children," said Leviv, an ultra-orthodox Jew who's expecting her seventh child this summer.

Bunk beds fill the three bedrooms of her terraced apartment in this hilly settlement. To one side, the neighborhood abuts the Shuafat Refugee Camp, home to 35,000 Palestinians who complain of severe overcrowding and lack of basic facilities and planning.

Ramat Shlomo has become the most contentious building project in Jerusalem, and it's at the center of what Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren calls the "most severe crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations" in decades.

Israel's announcement of the project as Vice President Joe Biden began an official visit last week embarrassed the Obama administration, and the fallout could block U.S.-led efforts to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Backed by the Arab League, Palestinians have demanded that Israel halt settlement projects such as Ramat Shlomo before talks begin.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under pressure from his largely conservative coalition to press on with the project, told his Likud Party Monday that settlement building would continue on land that Israel won from its Arab neighbors in the 1967 Six-Day War.

"Construction will continue in Jerusalem as this has been the case over the past 42 years," Netanyahu said. Israel Interior Minister Eli Yishai — whose ministry decided to announce the plan during Biden's visit — echoed Netanyahu, stating that "there is no construction freeze in Jerusalem, nor will there be one."

"We're sorry the Americans found the timing offending, but there is no freeze in Jerusalem," he said.

In the face of harsh U.S. criticism and demands that the project be scrapped, Netanyahu has tried to lower the visibility of the issue.

Neither the Jerusalem Municipality nor the prime minister's office would give a schedule for when building in Ramat Shlomo could begin. The municipality has quietly removed all planning meetings for east Jerusalem projects from its schedule and hasn't publicized any further movement on Ramat Shlomo.

Netanyahu is also reportedly working to placate the Americans by promising a delay in construction to give time for U.S.-led peace talks to commence, although it's not clear whether that would satisfy Palestinians' demands for a freeze on settlement construction.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Israel's behavior "insulting" on CNN Sunday, and President Obama's chief advisor, David Axelrod, told ABC News that the move was "an affront, it was an insult, but most importantly it undermined this very fragile effort to bring peace to that region."

Republican members of Congress, however, joined the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the main pro-Israel lobbying organization, in condemning the administration's stance.

"To say that I am deeply concerned with the irresponsible comments that the White House, vice president and the secretary of state have made against Israel is an understatement," said House Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia. He added that the crisis with Israel "jeopardizes America's national security."

Netanyahu is convening an inner forum of his cabinet to review a list of demands that Clinton made over the weekend, according to the Hebrew-language press.

Israeli officials refused to discuss the existence of such a list, but Hebrew-language papers said the U.S. expects Netanyahu to revoke the Ramat Shlomo decision and make significant gestures towards the Palestinians to restart peace talks.

The U.S. also is asking Israel to establish a committee to investigate whether the timing of the announcement was truly a mistake or meant to embarrass the US.

Meanwhile, residents in Ramat Shlomo are pressing the government to ignore the international criticism and break ground on the new units.

"I don't see why the rest of the world thinks they can tell us what to do. We don't want their politics, their peace process, or their instructions," Leviv told McClatchy.

She said she doesn't mind if the Palestinians build as well — though the Jerusalem municipality hasn't approved any housing developments for Palestinians, and most such construction is illegal and subject to demolition.

Despite a possible delay in the Ramat Shlomo housing project, she said her family wouldn't consider living outside the settlement.

"They said that we would never live here, surrounded by Arabs. But we have and we continue to grow. Soon all of Jerusalem will be ours, built as the new shining capital to welcome home Jews from across the world, God willing," said Leviv.

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