Reuters | Tue Nov 17, 2009 | 11:38pm IST
Defying the United States, Israel approved on Tuesday the building of 900 homes for Jews on West Bank land it occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and annexed to its Jerusalem municipality. The Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth said President Barack Obama’s envoy, George Mitchell, had asked an aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at a meeting in London on Monday, to block the proposed construction at the settlement of Gilo. But a government planning commission approved the addition of 900 housing units at Gilo, where 40,000 Israelis already live. Israel rejects the international description of Gilo as a settlement and says it is a neighbourhood of Jerusalem, the city it claims as its capital. The commission’s decision seemed likely to strengthen the Palestinians’ determination not to resume peace talks until settlement expansion is halted. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev declined comment on the Yedioth Ahronoth report, which said Netanyahu’s negotiator had rejected Mitchell’s request. Regev repeated Israel’s refusal to include areas it annexed to Jerusalem as part of any accommodation of Obama’s calls for “restraint” in West Bank settlement growth. A spokesman for Nir Barkat, the Israeli mayor of Jerusalem, issued a statement that seemed to confirm the report, saying the mayor “strongly objects to the American demand to halt construction in Jerusalem.” It was not immediately clear when construction work on the new homes in Gilo would begin. Some 500,000 Jews live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, also captured in 1967, among 2.7 million Palestinians. Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war, a move that was not recognised internationally. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a state they hope to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu, in order to get the peace process back on track, is willing to adopt the policy of the greatest possible restraint concerning growth in the West Bank — but this applies to the West Bank,” Regev said. “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and will remain as such,” he said, stating an Israeli position not recognised by world powers. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki condemned the decision as a further step by Israel “intended to prevent the Palestinian state from happening.” U.S. officials were not immediately available for comment. Obama is pressing for a resumption of peace negotiations, suspended nearly a year ago. While calling on Israel to show restraint in settlement expansion as a gesture of goodwill, Washington has urged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to drop his demand for a total freeze on settlements as a condition for new talks. Netanyahu has offered a temporary restriction on building projects that have not already started in the West Bank, but Abbas has rejected this as insufficient, both in scale and because it does not include areas Israel annexed to Jerusalem. Palestinian officials asked the United Nations and the European Union earlier this week to consider whether they might at some point endorse the framework of a Palestinian state without a negotiated solution to the conflict with Israel.