(The New York Times)
JERUSALEM — Israel ended an unofficial construction freeze in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem on Friday, announcing plans to build 238 housing units. The move comes as hard-won peace talks are stalled over the question of whether Israel will extend its broader construction moratorium in the West Bank.
The Housing Ministry’s announcement for a new set of construction tenders across the country included units in two Jewish neighborhoods built in areas of East Jerusalem conquered by Israel in 1967. A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed the plans for the neighborhoods, Ramot and Pisgat Ze’ev.
While East Jerusalem was not a part of the 10-month construction moratorium in the West Bank, the Palestinians want it as their future capital, and the world views it no differently from the West Bank — conquered territory that should not be built upon by the victor.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said: “This decision shows that the position of the Israeli prime minister has not changed. Instead, he continues to take every possible step to prevent the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state. By tendering in the occupied Palestinian territory, Netanyahu has once again demonstrated why there are no negotiations today.”
At a briefing with reporters in Washington, the State Department spokesman, Philip J. Crowley, called the Israeli announcement “a disappointment” and said it was “contrary to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties.” He said the Israelis had forewarned the United States of the announcement.
American-brokered talks between Mr. Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, have been stuck since late last month, when Israel’s construction freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank expired. The Palestinians, backed by the Arab League, have given the United States the month of October to find ways to get Israel to keep the construction stopped. They are threatening otherwise to end the talks.
The Palestinians say they cannot return to negotiations without an extension of the freeze because they are watching their future state disappear under their feet; Mr. Netanyahu says the fate of settlement construction, which has been going on for four decades and now houses hundreds of thousands of Israelis, should be part of the mix of contentious issues that the two sides negotiate, not a condition for talks.
Virtually the entire international community opposes the settlements. The vast majority of governments accept what the United Nations and the International Court of Justice in The Hague have declared — that the settlements violate international law. Israel says they are lawful because the Palestinians were not sovereign in the West Bank when it was conquered from Jordan in 1967. The United States and Japan take no stand on the settlements’ legality, according to spokesmen of their embassies in Israel, although they oppose them on policy grounds.
In March, when Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was visiting Jerusalem in an act of friendship to Israel, Israel announced plans for 1,600 Jewish units in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, embarrassing Mr. Biden and infuriating President Obama. Israeli officials promised Washington that there would be no more such surprises while negotiations were under way.
Israeli officials indicated Friday that the relatively modest number of units and their locations were such that they believed they were not violating their commitment to Washington. Mr. Netanyahu is still mulling an offer from the United States to extend the settlement freeze for two to three months in exchange for American security guarantees and military hardware.