JERUSALEM – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had barely left Israel on Monday after her latest peacekeeping mission when Israeli officials announced plans to build 1,400 new homes on land Palestinians claim for a future state.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed to keep building in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, dismissing Palestinian claims that construction on contested land is the greatest obstacle to peace.
The disclosure of the construction plans immediately after Rice’s visit demonstrated the intensity of the political pressures that Olmert faces.
He continues to support construction in disputed areas, over the objections of the Palestinians and the U.S., because it allows him to keep his fragile coalition intact.
The Israeli construction plans threatened to make it even harder for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to overcome his people’s skepticism that diplomacy, not violence, would win them a state.
Rice arrived in the region Saturday for three days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials meant to advance the U.S. goal of achieving a peace agreement before President Bush leaves office in January.
“I think it’s all moving in the right direction,” Rice said at a news conference with Abbas in Jordan.
She also warned Israel to halt new settlement activities that could upset progress.
“Settlement activity should stop – expansion should stop,” Rice said.
But two new construction projects were already being announced.
The city of Jerusalem said it plans to build 600 new apartments in the Pisgat Zeev neighborhood, which lies in the eastern sector of Jerusalem that Palestinians see as their future capital.
The Shas Party, a powerful partner in Olmert’s coalition government, said the prime minister had promised to revive frozen plans to build 800 homes in Beitar Illit, an ultra-Orthodox settlement in the West Bank.
“There are more on the way,” party spokesman Roi Lachmanovitch said.
Earlier in the day, Olmert pledged that Israel would build in east Jerusalem and heavily Jewish areas of the West Bank – land Israel expects to keep in a final peace agreement.
“This is going on within the framework of negotiations, and the negotiations will continue to progress,” he said.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the construction plans and appealed to the Americans to intervene. “This announcement is changing the situation on the ground for the worse,” Erekat said.