Israel won't slow building

Work to go on in settlements

The Associated PressSeptember 5, 2009 

  • Israeli settlement activity and the Palestinians' failure to rein in militants are perhaps the biggest stumbling blocks to an eventual peace deal that would divide the Holy Land into separate Jewish and Arab states.

    Today, about 300,000 Israelis live among about 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank. An additional 180,000 Israelis live in east Jerusalem neighborhoods built since Israel captured the area in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel evacuated its 8,000 settlers in the Gaza Strip in 2005, two years before the territory was taken over by Hamas militants.

— Israel said Friday that it will construct hundreds of new housing units in West Bank settlements before any slowdown in building, an announcement that drew harsh criticism from the U.S., which demands a complete settlement freeze as a prelude to renewing Mideast peace talks.

Israeli officials painted the move as a concession to the U.S. demand because it might bring a temporary halt to other construction. But since it would also mean building the new units and finishing about 2,500 others now under construction, it looked more like defiance than acquiescence.

Israel's proposal also does not include any freeze in building in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians hope to make their future capital.

The Obama administration did not mince words.

"We regret the reports of Israel's plans to approve additional settlement construction," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement Friday. "As the president has said before, the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also slammed the Israeli plan.

"For us, this idea is completely unacceptable," he told reporters. "We are asking the Israelis to freeze the settlements and to go towards the next phase of peace talks."

Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat went further, saying, "I think the only thing that will be suspended by this announcement is the peace process."

At the very least, Friday's announcement looked likely to either force the U.S. into a fresh showdown with Israel or into admitting that it no longer hopes to achieve a full halt to Israeli settlement building on lands Palestinians claim for a future state.

Peace talks have been suspended since shortly before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's election this spring, but there are expectations of a first meeting between Netanyahu and Abbas this month at the U.N. in New York.

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