JERUSALEM — A municipal planning committee on Wednesday advanced a plan to build a Jewish seminary in the heart of an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem, triggering angry Palestinian accusations that Israel was undermining already troubled Mideast peace efforts.
The move came amid rocky negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians over the outlines of a final peace deal. US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is mediating, is expected to present his vision for a proposed agreement in the coming weeks.
The fate of East Jerusalem is one of the most sensitive issues in the peace efforts. The Palestinians seek East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, as the capital of a future independent state. Israel considers East Jerusalem to be part of its capital and says it will never relinquish control of the area and its sensitive religious sites.
In Wednesday’s vote, the city planning council gave preliminary approval for a nine-story Jewish seminary in the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
Brachie Sprung, a Jerusalem municipality spokeswoman, said the vote was only a recommendation to build the seminary, and that the project needed more approvals before it can be built.
But in East Jerusalem, even discussions about changing the sensitive landscape can set off tensions. Nimr Hamad, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called the move “a new obstacle on the road to peace and a new obstacle in front of Mr. John Kerry’s mission.”
“This also proves that the Israeli government indeed flouts the position of the international community and international public opinion, thinking they can impose facts on the ground,” he added.
In addition to East Jerusalem, the Palestinians also seek the adjacent West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip for their state. They say that continued Israeli settlement construction is a sign of bad faith that makes it increasingly difficult to partition the land. More than 550,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The international community opposes settlement construction, and Kerry has said it raises questions about Israel’s commitment to peace. Israel offered a ten-month construction freeze outside of Jerusalem in 2010, but insisted the current round of peace talks would not include a construction freeze. Despite the criticism, Israel has announced plans to build thousands of new homes in Jerusalem and in West Bank settlements since peace talks resumed last July.
Pepe Alalo, a member of the planning committee and Meretz member of the Jerusalem City Council, said the seminary project had been delayed when Kerry was in the region to advance peace talks. He said he voted against the plan, calling it a “provocation.”
Kerry has set an April target date for reaching the outlines of a peace deal. With few signs of progress so far, the Palestinians have threatened to resume their campaign seeking recognition of their independence. In 2012, the UN General Assembly recognized Palestine as a nonmember state, opening the way for them to seek membership in dozens of international organizations.
Israel opposes the campaign, calling it an attempt to bypass peace talks.