US denies Kerry approved settlement building plans

Israel’s housing minister ‘not in a position to describe’ US envoy’s conversations with Netanyahu, Washington source says

Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the State Department in Washington, Monday, August 26, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the State Department in Washington, Monday, August 26, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

US Secretary of State John Kerry did not approve Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel’s plan to build 1,400 new housing units over the Green Line, a US official in Washington said Tuesday, notwithstanding a statement to the contrary by Ariel.

“Our position on settlements has not changed, and we have consistently communicated our objection both publicly and directly to the Israelis on settlement announcements,” the official said in a statement.

“We have also not coordinated or agreed to any settlement announcements,” he stressed.

The official said Kerry had never met or spoken to Ariel, let alone coordinated anything — including new settlement tenders — with him.

He added that Ariel was “not in a position” to describe any conversations that may have taken place between Kerry and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

On Monday, Ariel claimed a controversial decision by his ministry to publish tenders for 1,400 new settlement housing units was coordinated with and approved by Kerry.

“Even if the US isn’t pleased with the construction, it will continue,” he said in an interview with Israel Radio.

“The United States is the closest of our friends, but we aren’t pleased with all of its actions either,” Ariel said.

The Housing and Construction Ministry announced the decision on Friday. According to ministry spokesman Arik Ben Shimon, 801 units were approved for West Bank settlements, including 227 in Efrat, 169 in Elkana and 40 in Ariel.

In addition, Karnei Shomron would see an additional 86 units, Alfei Menashe 78, Adam 75, Beitar Illit 24, and Emanuel 102.

The Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, over the Green Line, would receive another 600 units.

Friday’s announcement had been expected after Israel released 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in late December, part of a deal made last summer when Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resumed.

Netanyahu has previously issued similar construction announcements to blunt criticism at home of prisoner releases. Many of those released were convicted of killing Israeli civilians and soldiers.

This time, the announcement was apparently postponed until after a visit by Kerry, who was in the region last week.

Kerry has been pushing a framework agreement, as part of his efforts to nudge Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu closer to a full treaty that would establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday the step was “not conducive to our efforts to move forward on peace,” adding: “We consider now and have always considered the settlements to be illegitimate.”

“This shows Israel’s clear commitment to the destruction of peace and imposition of an apartheid system,” said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, according to a statement released by the PLO negotiating team.

“The recent announcement by the Israeli government of new settlements in occupied State of Palestine is a slap to Mr. Kerry’s efforts and a clear message by Israel’s Prime Minister: ‘Don’t continue with your peace efforts,” the statement continued.

“We call on the United States and the rest of the international community to exert further efforts to halt the Israeli plans which aims to destroy the chances for the two state solution.”

In addition, another 532 units that had been approved for construction in the past, but did not attract offers from builders, are to be put back on the market. Those units are to be situated in the neighborhoods of Pisgat Ze’ev, Ramot, and Neve Yaakov, all of which sit over the Green Line.

In November, the Housing and Construction Ministry announced that it had approved the sale of land for some 1,700 apartments over the Green Line, including some 700 new apartments in Jerusalem and 1,030 in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The ministry said then that the announcement was in keeping with its policy of approving increased housing construction as a measure to help reduce the cost of housing nationwide.

The policy “has led to fast growth in construction starts that now stands at an annual rate of 43,000 [new] apartments, higher than the demand for new apartments each year,” according to Ariel, a senior member of the Jewish Home party.

Ariel promised to further increase the rate of construction of new apartments “throughout the country… in order to bring about a dramatic change in the cost of apartments.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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