Israel approves new settlements in east Jerusalem amid fragile peace talks
Palestinian officials said the decision undermines fragile U.S.-brokered negotiations with Israel
Israeli planners on Wednesday gave final approval for 558 apartments in Jewish settlements in war-won east Jerusalem, which is sought by the Palestinians as a capital, officials said.
Palestinian officials said the decision undermines fragile U.S.-brokered negotiations with Israel on setting up a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Also Wednesday, Israel's chief peace negotiator rebuked fellow government ministers who have criticized U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for his mediation efforts, pointing to widening divisions in Israel's center-right governing coalition.
The Jerusalem municipality said its planning committee approved building permits in the neighborhoods of Har Homa, Neve Yaakov and Pisgat Zeev, built on land Israel captured in the 1967 war and later annexed. Most of the international community considers them illegal settlements.
Brachie Sprung, a municipality spokeswoman, said the building projects received initial approval a few years ago, and that new building in Arab areas of Jerusalem was also approved Wednesday.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Israel is undermining Kerry's efforts. "The international community must hold Israel accountable for this policy," he said.
Lior Amihai of the Israeli settlement watchdog group Peace Now said the new approvals are "shameful" at a time when negotiations are in a sensitive stage.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev had no immediate comment.
More than 550,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians want to establish a state in those territories as well as the Gaza Strip, all captured by Israel in 1967.
Tzipi Livni, the chief Israeli negotiator, told Israel Radio on Wednesday that some members of the governing coalition are opposed to any kind of peace agreement and that recent verbal attacks on Kerry by hardliners are "shocking."
"Ministers and others are speaking in a way that upset me as an Israeli," said Livni. "There are people who don't want to reach an agreement. They don't care what Kerry will present."
Israel's coalition is divided on the peace talks, with Livni and others pushing for a deal while hawkish ministers oppose any agreement based on Kerry's anticipated outlines.
Kerry is expected to present a framework to guide the remainder of the talks, featuring his vision of a final peace deal.
While Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signaled flexibility in recent comments, a number of Israeli ministers have voiced hostility to Kerry's peacemaking efforts.
Pro-settler minister Naftali Bennett threatened Tuesday to bolt the coalition if his party deems Kerry's proposal unacceptable.
"I told the prime minister, present a document and then we will judge. If this thing does not meet our values, we won't be in the government," Bennett was quoted as saying.
Earlier in the week, Israeli media quoted Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon as saying if Israel doesn't reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, "we'll be fine." And Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party said Israel can't be expected "to conduct negotiations with a gun pointed to its head."
U.S. officials have rebuffed the Israeli jabs at Kerry. National Security Advisor Susan Rice wrote on Twitter that "personal attacks in Israel" directed at Kerry were "totally unfounded and unacceptable."
A group of five Israeli rabbis also criticized Kerry's efforts, warning him in a letter published Wednesday that he could face divine retribution if his efforts lead to a partition deal. None of the rabbis holds a prominent position.
Jewish settlement groups, meanwhile, have released a series of YouTube videos in recent weeks mocking Kerry's peace efforts.
Also on Wednesday, an Israeli court indicted three radical West Bank settlers for vandalizing Palestinian property.
In recent years, a fringe of extremist settlers have carried out acts of vandalism in retaliation for Palestinian attacks and to protest what they perceive as the Israeli government's pro-Palestinian policies. Mosques, churches, dovish Israeli groups and even Israeli military bases have been targeted in these so-called "price tag" assaults. The attacks have been widely condemned in Israel.
The indictment said the actions of the three men threatened to undermine public and regional security.
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