Palestinian Negotiator Criticizes Israel for Pressing Construction

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Correction Appended

JERUSALEM -- The chief Palestinian negotiator condemned Israel on Thursday for moving closer to constructing 69 apartments in a Jewish neighborhood on territory seized in the 1967 war even as Secretary of State John Kerry arrived for a fifth round of meetings in his intensive push to revive Middle East peace talks.

After the apartments were granted building permits Wednesday night, the negotiator, Saeb Erekat, compared the move to an embarrassing 2010 episode in which the Israeli Interior Ministry approved a large development in another annexed area of Jerusalem while Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was visiting. But Israeli officials pointed out that the 69 apartments, in the Har Homa neighborhood on Jerusalem's southern edge, had been approved years ago and that the issuing of permits was routine.

Still, the Palestinian response -- echoed by outrage from Israeli groups that oppose construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank -- underscored the sensitivity of the moment as people on both sides said the prospect for a breakthrough, or a breakdown, in Mr. Kerry's efforts was at a peak.

"Israel has a selected repertoire awaiting U.S. officials, like what happened to Mr. Biden, which includes settlements, settlements and more settlements," Mr. Erekat said in a statement. "Settlement activity in and around occupied East Jerusalem is one of the main reasons why the two-state solution is disappearing, as without East Jerusalem there will be no Palestinian state." He called on world leaders to "hold Israel accountable."

The current Israeli government has not started new development projects in East Jerusalem or the West Bank since it was formed in March, quietly acceding to a request from Mr. Kerry not to do anything provocative that could upset the delicate diplomacy. But more than 1,000 housing units have advanced through the zoning and permit process during that period, irking the Palestinians.

Brachie Sprung, a spokeswoman for the mayor of Jerusalem, said the 69 Har Homa units were among many that were granted building permits Wednesday night, including 22 in Arab neighborhoods, and that the timing was coincidental. "This is not a policy issue," she said. "Very routine."

During a Supreme Court hearing on Thursday, Israel declared its intention to legalize 14 structures that were built without permits in the settlement of Nokdim in the Etzion bloc, south of Jerusalem, and to allow 40 more to be built there, according to Army Radio. The announcement came in response to a petition by residents of the neighboring Palestinian village of Janata. Israeli officials said that the land in question was not privately owned Palestinian land, that the plans had been approved long ago and that the timing of the state's response was determined by the court and had nothing to do with Mr. Kerry's visit.

But it was another indication of how the settlement project continues to move ahead.

Mr. Kerry landed in Amman, Jordan, on Wednesday evening and met Thursday with King Abdullah II and other Jordanian officials, discussing ways to provide support for the Syrian opposition and refugees of the Syrian civil war, as well as Washington's effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. He then went to Jerusalem for dinner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. He plans to meet President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority on Friday in Amman, and possibly see Mr. Netanyahu again Saturday before continuing his eight-nation trip.

A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said of the building permits, "Obviously, steps like this are unhelpful, but we remain hopeful that both parties will recognize the opportunity and the necessity to go back to the table."

Mr. Netanyahu warned Thursday that making peace with the Palestinians would not "eliminate the wild defamation of the state of the Jews" and emphasized that Israeli security was the critical piece of any potential agreement.

"Peace is based on security, it is not based on good will and legitimacy as is believed," Mr. Netanyahu said at a memorial ceremony for Theodor Herzl, a founding father of Zionism, on the anniversary of his death, based on the Hebrew calendar. "Without security, without the army, the establishment of which Herzl called for, we will be unable to defend the peace, we will be unable to defend ourselves if the peace frays. A basic condition for the existence of peace, for achieving it and for preserving it, is security."

But Jibril Rajoub, a top Palestinian official, questioned whether Mr. Netanyahu "truly believes in the solution of two states for two peoples."

"The ball is in the other side's court," Mr. Rajoub said on Israel Radio. "If it truly becomes evident to us that the other side is building its route towards a future in the direction of creating two states for two peoples, believe me, we will meet him halfway."

Separately, a controversy has broken out within Israel over a refusal by McDonald's to open a franchise in a mall being built in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. A spokesman for McDonald's in Israel said the chain had never operated in territory seized by Israel in 1967.

Several rightist members of Parliament said they would boycott McDonald's. A rival chain, Burger Ranch, which already has outlets in West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements, announced that it would open its own branch in Ariel, which has a population of about 20,000 and a university.

"Ariel is a major city in Israel, and there is no reason for us not to have a branch there," Eli Orgad, an owner of Burger Ranch, was quoted as saying in the Israeli newspaper Maariv. "I will open anywhere that the state of Israel has decided that its citizens are located."

Michael R. Gordon contributed reporting from Amman, Jordan, and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem.

Correction: June 27, 2013, Thursday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misidentified the Jerusalem neighborhood where the 69 apartments granted building permits on Wednesday would be built. It is Har Homa, not the Hebrew University neighborhood. 

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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