Israel Approves New Housing in East Jerusalem
By Rick Gladstone
The New York Times
August 11, 2011
Israel’s Interior Ministry gave final approval on Thursday to construction of a contentious 1,600-apartment complex in East Jerusalem and said it would soon approve an additional 2,700 housing units there, a move that infuriated the Palestinians and could undercut American efforts to salvage long-stalled Middle East peace talks.
The announcement also provoked an angry reaction from Israeli groups opposed to housing construction on land conquered by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The opposition groups denounced it as an opportunistic way for the Israeli government to exploit a housing shortage that has led to unaffordable rents and mass protests in Israel. Peace Now, the leading antisettlement group in Israel, condemned what it called the Interior Ministry’s “cynical use” of the housing crisis.
The Interior Ministry announcement came a month before the annual United Nations General Assembly, where Palestinian Authority officials have said they may unilaterally declare statehood, a move that is opposed by both Israel and Israel’s strongest ally, the United States. They favor resuming peace talks, which remain stalled partly because of Palestinian objections to Israeli construction on disputed lands. The housing announcement could strengthen Palestinian resolve to proceed with the statehood declaration.
The issue of Israeli housing construction in disputed territory is particularly explosive in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after capturing it from Jordan in the 1967 war. Israel’s government has said it regards all of Jerusalem as its capital. But the Palestinians have said they consider East Jerusalem part of a future Palestinian state.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, called the Israeli housing announcement “an assault on international legitimacy and the prospect of the two-state solution.” He also said it was “further proof that this government is committed to investing in occupation rather than peace.”
In Washington, the Obama administration reiterated its longstanding criticism of Israel over such housing construction. The latest development was announced a day after President Obama spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel by telephone, though it is not clear whether the two directly discussed the issue.
“Unilateral action of this kind works against our efforts to get folks back to the table” for peace talks, the State Department’s spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said. She declined to discuss the timing of the announcement.
The United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry, said the housing announcement “undermines ongoing efforts by the international community to bring the parties back to negotiations and shape a positive agenda for September.”
An Israeli Interior Ministry spokesman, Roi Lachmanovich, told reporters in Israel that Mr. Netanyahu’s office had been aware that the construction plans for the 1,600-unit complex, called Ramat Shlomo, were moving ahead, and said that the additional 2,700 units were needed to satisfy demand.
Asked about the politically fraught timing of the approvals, Mr. Lachmanovich was quoted by The Associated Press as saying, “There’s always something pending.”
The Ramat Shlomo complex has a special significance because it was first announced during a March 2010 friendship visit to Israel by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. The announcement, which caught Washington off guard, angered Mr. Biden and Mr. Obama, who had been pressuring Israeli officials to freeze such construction as a way to restart peace talks with the Palestinians.
Israel has argued that any two-state solution with the Palestinians will involve holding on to areas like Ramat Shlomo, so that in its view, building more housing there for its citizens should not affect talks.
Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from Washington.