JERUSALEM – Israel on Monday announced plans to build 1,400 new homes on land the Palestinians claim for a future state — just hours after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice left the region following a peacekeeping mission.
Jerusalem's city hall announced it would build 600 new apartments in Pisgat Zeev, a Jewish neighborhood in the eastern sector of the city. Shortly after, an ultraOrthodox Jewish party said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised to build 800 additional homes in one of Israel's largest West Bank settlements, Betar Illit.
Palestinian officials weren't immediately available for comment.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. would like to push for an outline of an interim peace agreement by the time President George W. Bush visits the region in May.
But in the past, Israeli construction projects in the disputed areas have sparked a series of crises in the peace negotiations, provoking the Palestinians at one point to suspend talks.
The U.S. has been urging Israel to halt construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, and Rice made that same point Monday at a news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"Settlement activity should stop — expansion should stop," Rice said after meeting the Palestinian leader in Amman, Jordan.
Olmert spokesman Mark Regev had no comment on the new construction plans. But earlier in the day, the prime minister pledged that Israel would build in east Jerusalem and heavily Jewish areas of the West Bank — land Israel expects to keep in a final peace agreement.
Palestinians insist that construction on contested lands is the greatest obstacle to peace. But Olmert insisted the building would not disrupt peace negotiations.
"This is going on within the framework of negotiations, and the negotiations will continue to progress," he said.
At a U.S.-hosted peace conference in November, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to relaunch long-stalled talks and base negotiations on the 2003 "road map" peace plan. The U.S.-backed proposal calls on Israel to freeze all settlement activity, including in existing settlements.
Because it annexed east Jerusalem after the 1967 war, Israel does not consider construction there to be settlement activity. The Palestinians and the international community do.
Israel also maintains the right to build in West Bank settlements to account for "natural growth" of the population there, even though the road map specifically bans such activity.
Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski said he was confident that "following the prime minister's statement that construction in Jerusalem neighborhoods will continue, the government will not impose any delay on this plan."
A spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Roi Lachmanovitch said Olmert promised to revive frozen plans to build 800 homes in Beitar Illit. "There are more on the way," he added.
Shas is a powerful partner in Olmert's coalition and Olmert needs to keep the hawkish party from bolting to hold on to power. Without Shas, he would lose his parliamentary majority.
Monday's announcements followed a report by an Israeli watchdog group that Israel has approved the construction of almost 1,700 homes in contested territories since the peace talks were relaunched in Annapolis, Maryland, last fall.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said officials presented information on Israeli settlement activity to Rice. "President Abbas told Rice this is the most dangerous obstacle to peace," he said.
Also Monday, Israel began taking down some of the 50 West Bank roadblocks it pledged to remove during Rice's visit. Israel maintains more than 500 checkpoints and roadblocks, saying they are necessary security measures. The Palestinians say the travel restrictions are excessive and have crushed their economy.
Israeli defense officials said the Rimonim checkpoint near Ramallah, the seat of Abbas' government, had already been taken down.