Sebastian Scheiner, Associated Press
JERUSALEM — A plan for settling thousands more Jews in a strategic part of Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem has quietly cleared a key bureaucratic hurdle, threatening to cut a link between Jerusalem and the West Bank and endanger already slim peace prospects.
The proposed Givat Hamatos development would complete a Jewish band around a part of east Jerusalem, the Palestinians' hoped-for capital, complicating any future partition of the city.
"This is a game changer," Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem expert, said of Givat Hamatos. While relatively small in size, "this is a mega-settlement in terms of impact," he added.
The plan calls for about 2,600 apartments, including about 1,800 for Givat Hamatos and 800 for an expansion of Beit Safafa, an adjacent Palestinian neighborhood, Seidemann said. Construction could begin by the second half of 2012, he said.
Because of Israel's construction of a half-ring of Jewish enclaves in east Jerusalem, only a few land corridors are left its core Arab neighborhoods and the West Bank. Givat Hamatos would cut off one of the key remaining ones — cutting off the area of Beit Safafa from the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
The new building plan drew condemnation over the weekend from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. The U.N. and EU, along with the U.S. and Russia, make up the Quartet of Mideast mediators, who hope to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Quartet envoys are set to meet next week in the region to nudge the two sides back to the table, but prospects are were dim before, and even more so now.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he will not return to talks as long as Israel keeps building on territory it captured in the 1967 war, and Palestinian officials said the plans for Givat Hamatos reinforced that decision.
"It's another slap in the face of all those international efforts being made toward the resumption of a meaningful political process," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told The Associated Press on Monday. "It's not only damaging to our own interests, it's damaging to all those who have a vested interest in a two-state solution," referring to a Palestinian state next to Israel.
In any future peace deal, guidelines first established by former U.S. President Bill Clinton a decade ago would likely still apply to a partition of Jerusalem — Arab neighborhoods to Palestine and Jewish neighborhoods to Israel. Such arrangements would be complex, likely requiring the construction of bridges and tunnels to create contiguity between disjointed Arab and Jewish areas.
Both Israel and the Palestinians accepted the concept at the time, but peace talks broke down over other issues. Since then, both sides have taken steps away from those positions.
The Palestinians, along with the international community, make no distinction between construction for Jews in the West Bank and in the occupied sector of Jerusalem. Israel annexed east Jerusalem — plus a swath of West Bank land around it — after the 1967 war and since then has settled 200,000 Jews in a ring of new developments around the Arab core.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while offering to negotiate the terms of a Palestinian state, opposes a partition of Jerusalem. His ruling coalition is dominated by hard-liners and supporters of settlement.
In a reflection of their power, the Netanyahu government last week decided to set up a task force to review West Bank land ownership, possibly creating a way to legalize dozens of unauthorized settlement outposts on lands until now regarded as private Palestinian property.
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