JERUSALEM – A week before U.S. President George W. Bush visits the region, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has sent an official letter to Cabinet ministers ordering them not to authorize any West Bank construction without his approval, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Associated Press on Monday.
The letter, sent to the ministers of defense, housing and agriculture, did not address construction in east Jerusalem, which has upset just-relaunched peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. But several days ago, Olmert issued a directive to all government ministries requiring his approval for construction in east Jerusalem as well, a spokesman said last week.
Several recent lower-level decisions to move ahead with such construction caught Olmert off guard and angered the Palestinians and the United States.
"Establishment, new construction, expansion, preparation of plans, publication of residency bids, confiscation of land and all other activities related to Israeli settlement of the area shall not go forward and shall not be carried out without requesting and receiving in advance approval by the defense minister (Ehud Barak) and the prime minister," the letter read.
These orders do not apply to construction that already has been approved, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said. They do not apply to east Jerusalem either, because from the Israeli perspective, "the West Bank is not Jerusalem, and Jerusalem is not the West Bank," he added.
Israel captured both the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war. But although the Palestinians regard Jewish neighborhoods in either territory to be settlements, Israel rejects that label with regard to east Jerusalem, which it annexed shortly after the war.
The international community has not recognized the Israeli annexation.
Israel and the Palestinians officially announced their intention to break a seven-year deadlock and return to the negotiating table at a high-profile Mideast peace conference in late November in Annapolis, Maryland. But planned Israeli construction in the Jewish Har Homa neighborhood in east Jerusalem so enraged the Palestinians that they were unwilling to discuss any of the issues at the core of their conflict with Israel.
Last week, however, the Palestinians agreed to put the issue aside ahead of Bush's visit to the region next week, allowing talks on the main issues to go ahead.
In the past, the three main stumbling blocks to an agreement have been the final borders of a future Palestinian state; sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem; and a solution for Palestinian refugees who fled or were driven from their homes in the war following Israel's creation in 1948.
The crisis over the Har Homa neighborhood was only the first to beset the newly resumed peace talks. On Sunday, Olmert declared that no peace moves would be carried out until the Palestinians cracked down on militants.
On Friday, Palestinian attackers shot dead two off-duty Israeli soldiers near the West Bank city of Hebron. Three militant groups, including the Gaza Strip's Islamic Hamas rulers and an offshoot of Abbas' Fatah movement, claimed responsibility.
"As long as the Palestinian Authority doesn't take the necessary steps and act with the necessary vigor against terror organizations, Israel won't be able to carry out any change that would expose it to any jeopardy or endanger Israel's security," Olmert vowed.
In Annapolis, Olmert and Abbas had set a December 2008 target for reaching a peace agreement, coinciding with the end of Bush's tenure.
The talks are proceeding against a backdrop of still-simmering violence. On Sunday, a middle-aged Palestinian woman was shot and killed on the Gaza-Israel border while waiting for relatives to return from a religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, Palestinian officials reported.
The woman was waiting on the Paelstinian side of the Erez passenger terminal from Israel into Gaza on Sunday night when Israeli soldiers in a nearby watchtower opened fire, killing her and wounding four others, witnesses said. Palestinian health officials confirmed a woman was killed at Erez, and identified her as Khaldiyeh Hamdan, about 45.
The Israeli military said it was looking into the report.