- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 18, 2009

JERUSALEM | Israel gave approval on Tuesday for the construction of hundreds of housing units in annexed Arab East Jerusalem, drawing Western criticism as it drove another stake into troubled Middle East peace efforts.

The Interior Ministry said it approved the construction of 900 new units in Gilo, one of a dozen Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, in a move that flew in the face of Palestinian calls — which had U.S. backing — for a complete freeze on new building ahead of fresh peace talks.

Washington was quick to voice its unhappiness with the decision.

“We are dismayed at the Jerusalem planning committee’s decision to move forward on the approval process for the expansion of Gilo in Jerusalem,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

“At a time when we are working to relaunch negotiations, these actions make it more difficult for our efforts to succeed.”

An Israeli daily, Yediot Ahronot, said President Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, had asked an aide to hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting in London on Monday to block the proposed construction at the settlement of Gilo.

A U.S. official confirmed the report.

The approval is likely to further hamper Washington’s so-far futile efforts to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table amid deep disagreements over the thorny issue of settlements.

The Palestinians demand that Israel freeze all settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, before any resumption of talks, but Israel has so far offered only a limited reduction in new building.

The Palestinians said the Israeli announcement was a new blow to peace efforts.

“The Palestinian Authority strongly condemns this decision,” said Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.

“Settlements must be stopped, that is the only way back to a real peace process,” he said.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that the impasse has given him no choice but to seek international recognition of a Palestinian state, even as Europe and the United States discouraged the move.

“We feel we are in a very difficult situation,” Mr. Abbas said in Cairo after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. “What is the solution for us? To remain suspended like this, not in peace? That is why I took this step.”

Palestinian officials said earlier this week they intend to ask the U.N. Security Council to recognize a state in a move analysts said was aimed at pressuring Israel amid the floundering U.S. peace efforts.

The European Union, the Palestinians’ biggest donor, joined the United States in urging reconsideration of the move and instead called for a return to talks.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army suspended six soldiers Tuesday for protesting the army’s demolition of structures at an unauthorized settler outpost in the West Bank, after other troops refused to take part in the operation, the Associated Press reported.

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