JERUSALEM – An Israeli government plan to build nearly 700 new homes for Jewish families in Palestinian-dominated East Jerusalem drew fire Monday from the Obama administration, which called the plan a hindrance to relaunching peace talks.
“The United States opposes new Israeli construction in East Jerusalem,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday, calling on Israelis and Palestinians to return to U.S.-brokered talks. “Neither party should engage in efforts or take actions that could unilaterally pre-empt, or appear to pre-empt, negotiations.”
On Monday, Israel’s Housing Ministry unveiled plans to expand housing in three mostly Jewish neighborhoods that Israel annexed into Jerusalem after capturing the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War. Israelis view the neighborhoods as part of Jerusalem but, to Palestinians and most of the international community, the Jewish enclaves are illegal settlements on occupied land.
Israel defended the housing project – which came on the heels of a plan announced last month to construct 900 new homes in the Gilo neighborhood, also captured in 1967. Officials said construction in East Jerusalem is not part of its pledge to limit settlement growth on the West Bank. After heavy U.S. lobbying, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed in November to restrict some new construction on the West Bank for 10-months.
“We, however, make a clear distinction between the West Bank and Jerusalem,” said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and will continue to be so. It’s legally part of Israel.”
Palestinian leaders, who want a total construction freeze before returning to peace talks, said Israel’s insistence on expanding Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem raised questions about its commitment to finding a peaceful solution.