Erekat: Approval of 500 East Jerusalem homes a ‘slap in the face’

State Department says plan contradicts Israel’s commitment to two-state solution; Palestinian negotiator says PM choosing settlements over talks

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (Miriam Alster/Flash90/File)
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (Miriam Alster/Flash90/File)

Chief Palestinian negotiator to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Saeb Erekat, panned Israel’s decision to move ahead with plans for the construction of 500 apartments in the capital’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, which is situated over the Green Line in East Jerusalem.

“Israel’s latest settlement announcement is a slap in the face to US Secretary [of State John] Kerry, to the international community, to the Palestinian people, and to peace. The message is clear: The Netanyahu government chooses settlements over negotiations,” he said in a statement Monday.

“The international community must realize that statements alone will not stop Israeli settlements, protect the Palestinian people, or save the two-state solution. The international community has the responsibility to hold Israel accountable for its ongoing violations of international law,” he added.

Erekat was set to meet with Kerry in Washington later Monday to discuss the peace negotiations, which went into a deep freeze in April after a nine-month, US-brokered effort.

In his statement blasting the Israeli decision, Erekat also called on all countries to extend their recognition of a Palestinian state and to support a Palestinian initiative for a UN Security Council Resolution that would set a deadline for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines.

The US State Department made similar remarks in response to the plans in Ramat Shlomo, with spokeswoman Jen Psaki also saying that the decision “flies in the face of Israel’s statements about commitment to the two-state solution.

“It would be unfortunate at this sensitive time that, after the unequivocal and unanimous position last week of the United States and others in the international community opposing construction in East Jerusalem… Israeli authorities would actively seek to move these plans forward,” she said Monday.

Psaki added that the project ran “contrary” to the objective of returning to the negotiating table, but said there were “no current plans to introduce a peace plan.”

“We continue to engage at the highest levels with the Israeli government to make our position absolutely clear that we view settlement activity as illegitimate and unequivocally oppose unilateral steps that prejudge the future of Jerusalem,” she continued.

A construction site in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, December 2012 (photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty)
A construction site in Ramat Shlomo, December 2012 (photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty)

During a hastily arranged meeting Monday, the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee approved the plans in Ramat Shlomo.

Although the original plan was for 640 units, that number was cut down during Monday’s meeting, which was organized the night before at the behest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has vowed to push ahead with the project.

The planning committee tasked with reviewing and approving major construction plans for Jerusalem, as well as considering any objections, is comprised of representatives from relevant government ministries, local authorities, engineers and architects, and operates under the auspices of the Interior Ministry.

The Ramat Shlomo scheme is part of a larger development project that envisions some 1,000 apartments in Jerusalem neighborhoods that lie over the pre-1967 line that separated Israeli and Jordanian-controlled areas of the city, the so-called Green Line.

The Peace Now organization responded that the construction approval will only serve to make Israel’s relations with the United States even worse.

“The approval adds more fuel to the diplomatic fire and the crisis between Israel and the US,” the peace movement wrote in a statement. “The continuation of construction is another step toward transforming the idea of two states into a purely theoretical one.”

Peace Now Spokeswoman Hagit Ofran told AFP that the plans had been put on hold since 2006, but that with the new approval, building could begin within six to 12 months.

While Israel considers East Jerusalem part of its capital, the international community has routinely condemned building there as settlement construction that is unhelpful to the peace process with the Palestinians.

Last week, Netanyahu gave the go-ahead for 600 homes in Ramat Shlomo and another 400 in Har Homa, both Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem over the Green Line.

Monday’s announcement came amid heightened tensions and a string of violent incidents in Jerusalem. Last week, a prominent Temple Mount activist was shot and seriously injured by a Palestinian suspect, who was later killed in a shootout with police. The shooting was bookended by days of violent protests in East Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods.

Last week’s news of the 1,000 homes drew condemnation from the US, the EU, Jordan and the Palestinians.

The Israelis’ continued building across the Green Line is “incompatible with their stated desire to live in a peaceful society,” announced Psaki at the time.

In early October, Washington leveled especially harsh criticism at Jerusalem for a plan to develop a new neighborhood in the area of Givat Hamatos, saying the East Jerusalem construction would “poison the atmosphere” and distance Israel “from even its closest allies.”

Tensions between Jerusalem and Washington have become “red-hot,” according to The Atlantic, which last week reported a “full-blown crisis” between the long-time allies. The magazine quoted one senior administration official who called the Israeli prime minister “a chickenshit.”

The White House later denounced the slur and Kerry phoned Netanyahu to apologize on behalf of the administration.

AFP and AP contributed to this report. 

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