TEL AVIV // Israel's ending of a months-long unofficial building moratorium in East Jerusalem by approving the construction of 238 Jewish homes in the predominantly Arab area drew condemnation from Palestinians yesterday and appeared to further threaten the future of peace talks.
Hagit Ofran, a director at the Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now, said the housing approval marks the first time in more than seven months that Israel has given the go-ahead for Jewish construction plans in the eastern part of Jerusalem.
Last March, Israel triggered a diplomatic crisis with the US by announcing during a visit to the region by Joe Biden, the US vice president that it planned to build 1,600 new settler homes in the area.
Analysts say the right-leaning government's nod to new homes is aimed at garnering the support of pro-settler coalition partners and powerful settler groups for a possible extension of a partial settlement freeze that expired two weeks ago.
Ariel Atias, Israel's housing minister, issued building tenders late on Thursday for the construction of 158 housing units in Ramot and another 80 homes in Pisgat Ze'ev, two densely populated Jewish areas in East Jerusalem that were founded more than two decades ago. Israel appeared to aim to keep the tenders under low profile because it issued them as part of a larger blueprint for some 4,000 homes within the country's recognised borders.
A senior Israeli official told the Reuters news agency that Mr Atias, a member of the pro-settler and ultra-religious Shas party, has plans for another 1,700 homes in East Jerusalem, but has so far not published these "to avoid sabotaging talks with the Americans".
The announcement comes at a delicate time as the US struggles to return Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the negotiating table amid a bitter spat between the two sides over the expansion of Jewish settlements in territory Palestinians want as part of their future state.
Israel last month ended a 10-month freeze on new housing projects in the occupied West Bank, and has since rejected Palestinian demands to renew the moratorium. While the freeze did not officially include East Jerusalem, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, had quietly restricted building plans there as well. Israel has long declared the whole of Jerusalem as its indivisible and eternal capital, a claim not recognised internationally, while Palestinians want the territory as the capital of their future state.
So far, the clash over settlement expansion has led to the suspension of face-to-face peace talks that were launched in Washington in early September. Mr Netanyahu's office declined to comment on the housing ministry's announcement yesterday.
Israeli media yesterday quoted unidentified government officials as claiming that they had informed the administration of Barack Obama, the US president, about the intent to allow the building of homes in East Jerusalem. Following those discussions, they said, they had reduced the number of planned new residencies to about 240.
Nevertheless, the Palestinians yesterday warned that the approval endangers the peace process. Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, said: "We strongly condemn the decision. We call upon the US administration to hold the Israeli government responsible for the collapse of the negotiations and the peace process as a result of this government's insistence on killing every opportunity for resuming negotiations."
The dispute over the settlements may also prompt the Arab League to seek the United Nation's recognition of a Palestinian state as soon as next month instead of waiting for a peace agreement, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt's foreign minister, said yesterday.
Mr Gheit, who spoke during a visit to Brussels, said: "If Israel does not respect the settlements freeze, the Arab League will study some other options aside from the peace process, such as going to the United Nations and asking for the recognition of a Palestinian state."
The Arab League's monitoring committee last week endorsed the stance of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the western-backed Palestinian Authority, in hinging the resumption of direct talks on Israel's agreement to renew the settlement freeze. It also said that it will meet next month again to review alternatives to negotiations, in effect giving US diplomats more time to bridge the rift between Israel and the Palestinians.
In Ramallah yesterday, Mr Abbas told members of the Knesset from the left-wing Hadash party that the Palestinian Authority would not sign any peace deal that recognises Israel as a Jewish state or includes a land swap, the Tel Aviv-based daily Haaretz reported.
Mr Netanyahu is still weighing an offer from the Obama administration to extend the settlement freeze for two or three more months in return for US security guarantees and military equipment.
Israel has gradually expanded the Jewish population of East Jerusalem to some 200,000 settlers. About 260,000 mostly Muslim Palestinians are also residents of the city's eastern part, and they carry Israeli identity cards, giving them access to healthcare and welfare services. Few of them have opted to take up the option of Israeli citizenship and they claim that Israel's policies towards them, coupled with the increase of the number of Jewish settlers in the area, are designed to drive them out.