JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert approved plans on Sunday to build more than 300 new homes in a West Bank settlement days before a visit by a U.S. general to monitor compliance with an American-backed peace plan that requires a freeze of such construction.
The planned building at Givat Zeev, near Jerusalem, drew sharp condemnation from Palestinians, who charged the move was undermining American-led efforts to renew peace talks after a surge of deadly violence.
The construction was approved three days after a Palestinian gunman killed eight students at a prominent Jewish seminary in Jerusalem that is the ideological base of the settlement movement in the West Bank.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert, rejected suggestions that the construction approval was a gesture to the settlers after the attack, saying there was “no connection” between the move and the deadly assault on the seminary.
The ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a key partner in Olmert’s coalition, had pressed hard for the construction at Givat Zeev, a housing project for ultra-Orthodox Jews. Israel Radio said Shas had threatened to withhold support from the government in a no-confidence vote in parliament if the plan was not approved.
At the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md., in November that re-launched Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, both sides committed to carrying out their obligations under the “road map” peace plan, whose first phase requires Palestinians to break up and disarm militant groups and obliges Israel to freeze “all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements).”
Lt. Gen. William Fraser III, appointed by President Bush to monitor implementation of the road map, is to arrive in the region for a first joint meeting on Thursday with the Israelis and Palestinians to assess compliance with the plan.
Israeli Housing Minister Zeev Boim told Israel Radio Sunday the construction project at Givat Zeev, begun in 1999 but suspended after the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000, would resume in response to renewed demand after the violence had subsided in recent years.
Regev said Olmert had approved plans for construction of 330 additional homes at Givat Zeev, in accordance with a directive he issued in December requiring his approval for further construction in West Bank settlements.
Givat Zeev, home to more than 10,000 Israelis, is one of the major West Bank settlements Israel plans to keep in a future peace agreement, Regev said.
“In no way did we commit to freeze construction in the settlement blocs,” he said. “The prime minister said publicly before, during and after Annapolis that construction will continue in the large settlement blocs.”
Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator and a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called the Israeli decision “another slap in the face of the peace process.”
“This decision is really harming and destroying our credibility as a Palestinian Authority, and at the same time it is undermining all efforts being exerted to revive the negotiations,” Erekat said. Palestinian officials assert that continued Israeli settlement building on West Bank land is undercutting efforts to negotiate the creation of a territorially viable Palestinian state.
Previous rounds of talks stalled after disputes over Israeli settlement construction, and Abbas suspended the negotiations last week after a five-day Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip.