TEL AVIV // Israeli plans to construct about 800 new housing units in the occupied West Bank drew fury from the Palestinians yesterday and are likely to complicate efforts to renew Middle East peace negotiations.
The plan to expand Ariel, one of the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank, was reported by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. The plan provoked more international criticism of Israel a day after the country announced plans to build 1,300 new apartments for Jewish families in an area considered part of mostly-Arab East Jerusalem.
But Israel yesterday rejected criticism of the plan for East Jerusalem, insisting it would never limit construction in its "capital", according to a statement from the office of the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"Israel sees no connection between the peace process and the planning and building policies in Jerusalem that have not changed for the last 40 years," the statement said. "Jerusalem is not a settlement - Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Israel," it said.
Nonetheless, Palestinian leaders yesterday were dismayed. Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, lambasted both construction plans and demanded international recognition of Palestinian statehood as a way to counter Israeli moves to step up settlement building. "Israeli unilateralism is a call for immediate international recognition of the Palestinian state," he said in a statement.
Palestinian leaders have repeatedly threatened to seek the United Nations' recognition of Palestinian statehood, without waiting for a peace treaty with Israel, should talks continue to be deadlocked.
Mr Erekat added that Israel's settlement enterprise "is nothing but a premeditated process to kill the possibility of an independent Palestinian state."
Yesterday, both the US and the European Union condemned Israel's moves. During a trip to Indonesia, the US President Barack Obama criticised the plan to build in East Jerusalem, an area that Palestinians want as the capital of their future state. "This kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations," he told reporters. "I am concerned that we are 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."
The European Union joined the US condemnation of the East Jerusalem plan and urged Israel to reconsider it. "The plan contradicts the effort by the international community to resume direct negotiations and the decision should be reversed," said Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy commissioner, in a statement. "Settlements are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible."
The move to build new homes in Ariel is also controversial because the future of the fourth largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank remains disputed, not only between Israel and the Palestinians, but also among Israelis themselves. Israel has pledged to annex Ariel, situated in the northern West Bank near the city of Nablus, and other major settlements in any pact with the Palestinians. While the Palestinians have spoken about limited territorial exchanges, they chafe at Israeli moves to predetermine borders.
Ron Nachman, who helped establish Ariel in 1978 and who has served as its mayor for 25 years, confirmed the intent to construct new units. The construction is likely to receive the green light soon because it now needs only the nod of Ariel's planning and building committee. According to Haaretz, the area in which the units are slated to be built is privately owned by a Jewish businessman and therefore the construction is not subject to the Israeli defence ministry's approval.
Mr Nachman said the establishment of the new homes would be a major development for Ariel.
Both the report over the plan to build in Ariel and the announcement to construct in East Jerusalem could embarrass Mr Netanyahu, who is visiting the US this week to try to revive Middle East peace efforts. Mr Netanyahu is due to meet with Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, in New York on Thursday, and is expected to discuss the settlement issue.
* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse