Aron Heller / Associated Press – 2010-07-10 18:49:33
JERUSALEM (June 23, 2010) — Israel’s defense minister criticized on Tuesday a plan to raze 22 Palestinian homes to make room for an Israeli tourist center in disputed east Jerusalem after the US expressed concern that the project could incite violence.
A Jerusalem municipal body approved the plan on Monday for shops, restaurants, art galleries and a large community center on the site next to the walled Old City where some say the biblical King David wrote his psalms. In March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressured Jerusalem’s mayor to delay it, apparently to fend off US criticism at a time when relations are tense.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is in the U.S. for talks with the Obama administration, said Jerusalem officials “are not displaying common sense or good timing, and not for the first time.”
Jerusalem is the most divisive issue between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel annexed east Jerusalem after capturing it from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war and nearly 200,000 Jews have moved there since, living alongside 250,000 Palestinians. Palestinians hope to build the capital of a future state in east Jerusalem and see any Israeli construction there as undercutting their claim.
The international community does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over east Jerusalem.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley voiced concern on Monday about the east Jerusalem plan.
“This would appear to be the kind of action that undermines trust and potentially incites emotions and adds to the risk of violence,” he said.
Barak heads Israel’s Labor Party, the centrist element in Netanyahu’s center-right coalition and favors far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians, unlike other coalition partners.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s office rejected Barak’s criticism, saying the plan would rehabilitate a neglected section of the city and that he wants to build thousands of apartments for Arab residents. The plan still faces additional stages of approval and inevitable court challenges.
In neighboring Jordan, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said after talks with King Abdullah that he “categorically rejects” Israel’s plan because it “is a stumbling bloc in the path of the political process.” Abbas urged the US to ask Israel to “stop such measures.”
U.N. spokesman Richard Miron called the Jerusalem’s municipality’s decision worrying.
“We will be reminding the Israeli government of its responsibilities, and ensure that provocative steps are not taken in the city, particularly at this fragile time when the goal must be to build trust and support political negotiations,” he said.
The plan was a point of contention Tuesday in an exchange over peace negotiations.
Addressing Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said, “We should begin direct talks for peace now without delay and without preconditions.”
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat responded that if Netanyahu really wanted such talks, “he wouldn’t make decisions like demolishing Palestinian houses.”
Erekat said direct talks could start only if “the Israeli government halts all settlement building, including in Jerusalem.
President Barack Obama’s Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, has been mediating indirect peace talks for weeks, but progress has been reported.
Associated Press Writer Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.