RAMALLAH // Just a day after indirect negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis were formally launched, albeit without any actual talks, the proximity process that Washington has pushed so hard for was already in trouble. The Israeli government yesterday announced it would continue construction in Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem regardless of the talks. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), meanwhile, protested to the US against the construction of 14 Jewish homes in the Ras al Amoud neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem.
Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO chairman, has reportedly received US assurances that there would be no construction in East Jerusalem during proximity talks, and Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior PLO official, denounced the construction saying it could undermine talks. "This is the first violation and first breach of the terms to start the indirect negotiations," Mr Abed Rabbo said. "We will act immediately to stop this, because we will not agree that negotiations will be used as a cover for settlement activities."
The new housing first came to light on Sunday, when Peace Now, an Israeli pressure group, said a private contractor was awaiting approval from the Jerusalem municipality for a settlement, Maaleh David, on land purchased by an American Jewish millionaire in Ras al Amoud. The settlement would be the largest in that part of East Jerusalem. The 14 units, for which renovation work recently began according to Peace Now, did not need construction permits from the municipality because they are located within an existing structure. That might provide Israel with wriggle room should Washington take matters further, because the Israeli government can argue that it had nothing to do with approving the housing.
But the Israeli government will find it harder to explain away comments by officials yesterday that it has no intention of ending settlement construction in East Jerusalem, which is already proving to be the most likely source of disruption for the proximity process. The United States on Sunday said it had received commitments from both sides "that are enabling us to move forward", but warned that if either of the parties took "actions ... that we judge would seriously undermine trust, we will respond to hold them accountable".
Such actions would include the announcement of new construction in East Jerusalem. Proximity talks failed to get off the ground in March because Israel announced tenders for 1,600 housing units in the Ramat Shlomo settlement in East Jerusalem. But while the US specifically mentioned on Sunday that there would be no construction in that settlement, this has not deterred Israel from announcing that it will continue building elsewhere in Jerusalem.
"Building is expected to begin soon in Har Homa ... and Neve Yaakov [two East Jerusalem settlements], where bids have been issued," Zvi Hauser, Israel's cabinet secretary, told Israel Army Radio yesterday. Such announcements spell bad news for the proximity talks. The PLO agreed to enter into indirect negotiations after receiving not only Arab League support, but also holding an unusual joint meeting of the PLO's executive committee and the central committee of Fatah, Mr Abbas's party. Palestinian officials have repeatedly stated they will walk away from the process should Israel continue its settlement construction. Palestinians remain deeply sceptical that Israel is serious about any process, direct or indirect.