Friday, 5 November 2010

As Netanyahu Heads to US, Israel Keeps Building

AOL NEWS, November 5th, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

JERUSALEM (Nov. 5) -- A page of gray, text-heavy official announcements published in an Israeli newspaper could torpedo President Barack Obama's strategy for the renewal of Middle East peace talks.

The announcements came on the eve of a crucial visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the U.S., where he will meet with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while Obama is traveling in Asia.

In the Hebrew daily Maariv, the Israel Lands Administration detailed tenders inviting contractors to bid for the construction of 238 new homes in two Israeli neighborhoods in East Jerusalem -- on the same day Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas denounced Israel's "ferocious" building in the occupied territories.

Israel Announces East Jerusalem Houses as Netanyahu Heads to White House
Tara Todras-Whitehill, AP
The East Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev is seen behind a section of Israel's separation barrier. The Israel Lands Administration has asked for contractor bids for construction of new homes in the neighborhood.

The tenders are for 80 housing units in Pisgat Zeev with development costs of nearly $4.5 million, and for another 158 units in Ramot on land valued at nearly $14 million.

The publication, prefigured but not detailed in a Housing Ministry announcement in October, finally ends an unofficial freeze on Israeli construction in East Jerusalem. The Palestinians have demanded that freeze, along with a halt to settlement construction in the West Bank, as a condition for direct peace talks with Israel.

While it agreed to the 10-month freeze in the West Bank that expired in September, Israel has officially refused to halt construction in East Jerusalem, which it regards as Israeli sovereign territory. The Palestinians consider the area, occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six Day War, to be the capital of their future independent state.

These are the first Israeli housing tenders published for East Jerusalem since a similar announcement last March dropped a diplomatic bombshell in the middle of a visit to Israel by Biden. Netanyahu blamed the poor timing of that announcement on bureaucratic bungling at the Housing Ministry and said he would improve coordination to ensure that similar embarrassments did not occur in future.

So the timing of Thursday's advertisements, just days before Netanyahu arrives for talks with Biden and Clinton, is likely to be perceived as a test of the administration's diplomatic strength after the Democrats' poor showing in the midterm congressional elections.

An official in Netanyahu's office, speaking to AOL News on condition of anonymity, said there was no message in the timing of the tenders, which, unlike the announcement during Biden's visit, did not come as a surprise to the Israeli prime minister. "Israel is transparent on these issues," said the official.

"In every peace plan that's been put on the table since the peace process started, the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem remain part of Israel in a final-status peace agreement. Building inside those neighborhoods in no way contradicts the goal of moving forward in the peace process," the official said.

Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney specializing in Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem and the founder of the co-existence group Ir Amim, told AOL News, "This is not random, but what it indicates about Netanyahu's intentions is very much in question.

"There are three possibilities. Netanyahu is either testing how far he can go, he's signifying the end of the moratorium or he's letting off steam protecting his right-wing flank in anticipation of a continued moratorium," Seidemann said. "I see these tenders as extremely detrimental, extremely problematic, but I don't think this is the final word. There is skirmishing going on, and this is part of it. It's a probe."

Seidemann said that if all Israeli construction plans currently in the pipeline were implemented, they would scupper the chances of both Israelis and Palestinians sharing Jerusalem and establishing their capitals in the city.

Meanwhile, Clinton said there was still hope for reviving the direct talks, which began nine months into the 10-month freeze and then were halted by the Palestinians as the freeze ended.

"We are working on a nonstop basis with our Israeli and Palestinian friends to design a way forward in the negotiations," Clinton said Thursday during a trip to New Zealand. "I am very involved in finding the way forward, and think we will do so."

But in an interview with CNN, Abbas said that unless Israel stopped all building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the talks would stop and the Palestinians will unilaterally seek recognition from the United Nations.

"To ask us to continue with negotiations while settlement activities are under way is unacceptable, because the time will come and we will have nothing to negotiate for," said Abbas, describing all settlements as "illegal."

"I know that they have built so many settlements, but this is enough, we cannot take that anymore. We cannot continue with the negotiations because the way they are building those settlements now is very ferocious," he said.

Abbas also blamed Hamas and its Iranian sponsors for trying to derail peace talks.

"Hamas and whoever is standing behind Hamas, meaning Iran, is slowing the process," Abbas told CNN. "Iran is pressuring Hamas not to be part of any agreement, so that they can use Hamas as a negotiations card in their talks with the international community and especially with the United States."

Adding to the mix ahead of Netanyahu's flight to Washington, the Haaretz newspaper said it would publish an expose on Sunday showing that the Israel Lands Administration, which supervises government-controlled land, has transferred sensitive properties in Arab-populated areas in and around the Old City of Jerusalem to nationalist Israeli groups "for low prices, without issuing a tender as required by law."

"The state and the groups involved concealed the transactions and refused to give any information about them," Haaretz reported today.

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