JERUSALEM, March 24 (Reuters) - Undeterred by turbulence in
its ties with the United States and Britain, Israel on Wednesday
confirmed further plans to expand the Jewish presence in
occupied East Jerusalem, with more building freshly approved.
In a move sure to anger Palestinians and frustrate Western
proponents of a freeze on settlement construction, a city
official said approval was given to develop a flash-point neighborhood from which Palestinians were evicted last year.
Word of the move came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
completed an unusually low-profile meeting in Washington with
US President Barack Obama for fence-mending talks, after their
open spat over East Jerusalem earlier this month.
Netanyahu says he regretted the bad timing of an
announcement of East Jerusalem building plans during the visit
of US Vice President Joe Biden two weeks ago, which Washington
But on Monday he insisted before an audience of influential
American Jews that Jerusalem is our capital and building will
continue there as Israel sees fit.
His defiant assertion coincided with a public slap to Israel
from Britain, which announced it was expelling an Israeli
diplomat over the forgery of British passports used by the
suspected killers of a Hamas commander in Dubai.
Israel said it regretted Britain's decision but commentators
on Wednesday predicted no meaningful damage to bilateral ties.
Irish, French, German and Australian passports were also
forged by the assassination squad, and their authorities were
expected to examine Britain's evidence implicating Israel.
In a comparatively rare public complaint, Saudi Arabia on
Wednesday asked major powers involved in Middle East
peace-making for clarifications about Israel's arrogant policy
and its insistence on defying international will.
Israeli media said Netanyahu was surprised by news of the
latest plans to build apartments in the Sheikh Jarrah district,
which has become a focal point for anti-settler demonstrations
since Palestinian residents were evicted.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said it was part
of Israel's attempt to forcibly end any Palestinian presence in
East Jerusalem, and to foreclose any hope of reaching agreement
on the core issue of Jerusalem in line with international law.
There is growing international frustration with Israel over
the actions and decisions it is taking, he said. Israel is
digging itself into a hole that it will have to climb out of if
it is serious about peace.
Speaking on Army Radio, Jerusalem councillor Elisha Peleg
said the plan had been advancing for months. The latest move was
just a technical step on the way to approving 100 homes.
We will continue to build all over Jerusalem, in Sheikh
Jarrah and Ras al-Amud as well, he said, naming another
Palestinian neighbourhood in the Jerusalem area.
Erekat said President Mahmoud Abbas would insist that Israel
revoke the Sheikh Jarrah project, as well as plans published
during the Biden visit to build 1,600 houses at another site.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem as part of its capital after
capturing it in the 1967 war. Its claim is not recognised
internationally. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as capital of
a future state they are seeking in the occupied West Bank.
In Washington, the Obama-Netanyahu talks yielded no sign of
a breakthrough in the stalled peace process, which has been
suspended for 15 months since Israel launched its offensive on
the Islamist Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
In a sign of lingering tensions, the Obama administration
withheld from Netanyahu some of the usual trappings of a White
House visit. Press coverage of the Oval Office talks was barred,
and the leaders made no public statements afterward.
President Obama and the prime minister met privately for an
hour and a half, the atmosphere was good, Netanyahu spokesman
Nir Chefetz said in a statement several hours after.
He said advisers continued discussions on the ideas raised
at the meeting and would hold further talks on Wednesday.