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Israel issues 558 permits for East Jerusalem housing

Decision is bound to disrupt fragile U.S. brokered negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

by Yair Ettinger and the Associated Press     5 February 2014         Haaretz

Archive photo of construction in East Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa.

Archive photo of construction in East Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa. Photo by AP

Israeli planners on Wednesday gave final approval for 558 new apartments in East Jerusalem.

According to the Jerusalem Municipal Committee for Planning and Building, 389 units were approved in Har Homa, 136 in Neve Yaakov and 36 in Pisgat Zeev, all beyond the Green Line. According to the committee, these are plans that were approved years ago.

The committee also authorized housing units for Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem: 17 in Tzur Baher, 14 in Beit Safafa, eight in Jabbal Mukkaber and six in Beit Hanina.

(Note the difference in numbers for Palestinians and Israelis -a sop to Kerry! Ed) 

Palestinian officials said the decision undermines fragile U.S.-brokered negotiations with Israel on setting up a Palestinian state alongside Israel, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

A Jerusalem municipal spokesman issued a statement. "The municipality strongly opposes any effort to stifle the legitimate right of every resident to receive building permits and continue building in all neighborhoods of the city according to the master plan for Jew and Arabs as one, regardless of race, religion or gender."

Also Wednesday, Israel's chief peace negotiator rebuked fellow government ministers who have criticized U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for his mediation efforts, pointing to widening divisions in Israel's center-right governing coalition.

The Jerusalem municipality said its planning committee approved building permits in the neighborhoods of Har Homa, Neve Yaakov and Pisgat Zeev, built on land Israel captured in the 1967 war and later annexed. Most of the international community considers them illegal settlements.

Brachie Sprung, a municipality spokeswoman, said the building projects received initial approval a few years ago, and that new building in Arab areas of Jerusalem was also approved Wednesday.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Israel is undermining Kerry's efforts. "The international community must hold Israel accountable for this policy," he said.

Lior Amihai of the Israeli settlement watchdog group Peace Now said the new approvals are "shameful" at a time when negotiations are in a sensitive stage.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev had no immediate comment.

More than 550,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians want to establish a state in those territories as well as the Gaza Strip, all captured by Israel in 1967.

Tzipi Livni, the chief Israeli negotiator, told Israel Radio on Wednesday that some members of the governing coalition are opposed to any kind of peace agreement and that recent verbal attacks on Kerry by hardliners are "shocking."

"Ministers and others are speaking in a way that upset me as an Israeli," said Livni. "There are people who don't want to reach an agreement. They don't care what Kerry will present."

Israel's coalition is divided on the peace talks, with Livni and others pushing for a deal while hawkish ministers oppose any agreement based on Kerry's anticipated outlines.

Kerry is expected to present a framework to guide the remainder of the talks, featuring his vision of a final peace deal.

While Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signaled flexibility in recent comments, a number of Israeli ministers have voiced hostility to Kerry's peacemaking efforts.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett threatened Tuesday to bolt the coalition if his party deems Kerry's proposal unacceptable.

"I told the prime minister, present a document and then we will judge. If this thing does not meet our values, we won't be in the government," Bennett was quoted as saying.

Earlier in the week, Israeli media quoted Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon as saying if Israel doesn't reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, "we'll be fine." And Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party said Israel can't be expected "to conduct negotiations with a gun pointed to its head."

U.S. officials have rebuffed the Israeli jabs at Kerry. National Security Advisor Susan Rice wrote on Twitter that "personal attacks in Israel" directed at Kerry were "totally unfounded and unacceptable."

A group of five Israeli rabbis also criticized Kerry's efforts, warning him in a letter published Wednesday that he could face divine retribution if his efforts lead to a partition deal. None of the rabbis holds a prominent position.

Jewish settlement groups, meanwhile, have released a series of YouTube videos in recent weeks mocking Kerry's peace efforts.