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 negotiations.
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, according to Palestinian officials, who said they'd consider settlement expansion a breach of the terms by which the United States set up the talks. "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 United States has been trying to restart peace negotiations for 17 months, since Israel launched a major military operation in the Gaza Strip. Palestinians leaders called off direct negotiators until Israel declared a 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 persuade 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.