JERUSALEM — Less than 24 hours after Israeli and Palestinian leaders relaunched indirect peace talks, Israel on Monday announced its intention to expand Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, a step that Palestinians warned could torpedo the process.
Israeli Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser listed several settlements where Israel would continue construction, telling Army Radio, "Building is expected to begin soon in Har Homa ... and Neve Yaakov, where (construction) bids have been issued."
He gave no details of specific plans to continue construction — leaving it unclear whether Israel plans to move on any projects immediately.
The current negotiations are already on shaky ground, said Palestinian officials, who said they'd consider settlement expansion a breach of the terms by which the United States set up the talks.
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"If they begin doing this (building project), I think they will take down the proximity talks," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. "The whole concept behind proximity talks is to give (Mideast envoy) George Mitchell and U.S. President Barack Obama the chance they deserve."
The U.S. has been trying to restart peace negotiations for 17 months, since Israeli forces launched a major military operation in the Gaza Strip. Palestinians leaders called off direct negotiators until Israel declared a complete freeze on Jewish settlement building.
Mitchell and other U.S. mediators have since been shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, to try to convince the two parties to resume full-scale talks. Mitchell, who returned to Washington this week, will relay the results of the first round of shuttle diplomacy.
The issue of East Jerusalem settlement construction nearly caused the cancellation of negotiations in early March, when Israel announced plans for 1,600 new housing units in the settlement of Ramat Shlomo during a visit to Jerusalem by Vice President Joe Biden.
The U.S. asked Israel to review its settlement policy, and on Sunday State Department spokesman Philip Crowley cautioned both sides they'd be held accountable if they did anything that could "seriously undermine trust."
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office has denied reports by McClatchy and other news organizations that Israel had delayed the Ramat Shlomo building. It said in a statement that construction there would begin "in a few years" only because there are planning procedures left to complete.
Pro-settlement activists, however, claim that the Israeli government has instituted a de facto freeze, or slowdown of settlement activity in an effort to pacify the Americans and the Palestinians.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas addressed the issue of the freeze by telling reporters, "The Americans said some words to us, and they said some words to the Israelis, and now it's up to the U.S. administration to answer such things."
Lawmakers in Netanyahu's largely hawkish government admitted that they have left the Israeli premier with little room to negotiate. Israel's daily Maariv newspaper reported that an official in Netanyahu's office said the government was "in a trap."
"Israel is getting caught in a serious trap, and we need a miracle to emerge whole from these proximity talks," Maariv quoted the official as saying. He said that any right-wing Israeli official could "come along now and cause a crisis, and at any given moment, some Israeli action can come up that will be interpreted by the Americans as undermining trust."
Netanyahu's right-wing coalition has pressed for settlement expansion even as Netanyahu has discussed extending a partial freeze in construction.
Lawmaker Zvulun Orlev said that his party could threaten a coalition crisis over the issue.
"If Netanyahu does not build in Jerusalem, he won't be able to count on his current coalition," said Orlev. "We celebrate a sad Jerusalem Day this week because for the first time, there is no construction in Jerusalem."
On Wednesday, Israel will celebrate Jerusalem Day, a holiday that in past years has been used by settler groups hoping to promote Jewish expansion in East Jerusalem.
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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